West Babylon School District custodian Mike Kuffo refuses to leave students in the shade.
“I always try to make eye contact with them to say ‘Hi,'” Kuffo said of the elementary school students at Forest Avenue and John F. Kennedy Elementary Schools. “Saying ‘Hello’ is probably what brightens up someone’s world when you can’t tell if they’re having a gloomy day. I don’t like anyone in the shade or darkness.”
Since December, Kuffo has stepped up his game from friendly “Hellos” and has gone above and beyond the call of duty of a custodian. He began a mission to unite the students and staff of every West Babylon elementary school through artwork that he creates on his own time for free.
The 28-year-old West Babylon High School graduate painted murals throughout Forest Avenue and John F. Kennedy elementary schools. And he is determined to design and execute murals unique to the district’s three other elementary schools that capture the culture of each school.
After she saw Kuffo’s portrait of Buddy the Elf from the 2003 movie “Elf” on a window in the nurse’s office, Forest Avenue Elementary School Principal Gayle Manchisi asked if the custodian would consider painting something more permanent for her school. Kuffo agreed to paint a mural in the cafeteria, where he had domain over a giant blank wall space 40 feet foot long by 40 inches high.
When they began brainstorming ideas and Manchisi asked what he associates with Forest Avenue, Kuffo said “the first thing I think of is diversity.”
Diversity has been a focus for Manchisi and an intern at the school, Forest Avenue Elementary special education teacher Lauren Shaw, in recent months.
“One of the projects we’re doing is an ENL project to bring the building more diversity,” Shaw said. “Every sign around the building is eventually going to be in Vietnamese, Turkish and Spanish, as well. Those are the highest populations of students we have.”
Kuffo’s designed silhouettes of known landmarks and unique architectural designs from countries around the world coincide with the makeup of the school’s student body. His work also features the word “Together” in 14 different languages spoken by students.
Manchisi said when Kuffo started in the district six years ago, she noticed how well he meshed with the staff in his first month on the job. She especially took notice of his connection with the students.
“He is extremely cognizant of who the students are as individuals,” she said. “I think that shows in the mural that he created, that he looks at the students as individual people, and that’s what we’re trying to foster here.”
The 40-foot wide mural took Kuffo four days to paint — and he employed an extra pair of helping hands.
“Obviously, Mike did the majority of the work, but I am very good at painting by numbers and I take direction very well,” Shaw said. “So I stayed after a few days, helped with some of the silhouettes, the tree, and some of the hands. We were here all weekend.”
With Shaw’s help, the mural was ready for the children that following Monday when they lined up for breakfast. Kuffo was not scheduled to work in the school at that time, but he went in on his time off to see the children’s reactions.
“It’s their eyes, I almost want to say they sparkle when they look at it,” Kuffo said. “It’s something that they weren’t expecting and when they see it, it’s like ‘Wow.'”
Lots and lots of firetrucks
Kuffo’s older sister who studied art inspired his own artistic journey about nine years ago. A fire fighter for the West Babylon Fire Department from 2015 to 2017, local fire departments and fire trucks inspire much of his work, which he sells through Instagram. He said he sold paintings to departments across the country, and even recently sold and shipped a piece to Ireland.
When he’s not painting, he spends time with his fiance, Rose, and his eight-year-old son, Joseph, who has taken to his father’s craft.
“He says he wants to be like his father, an artist,” Kuffo said “His art, it’s mostly firetrucks, like me.”
Over the span of six days in January, Kuffo painted his second of five murals at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School. To promote literacy, he designed a bookcase lined with children’s books. Including the grown ups this time around, he invited teachers and staff members to write their names on the book jackets.
Kuffo expects to finish the next three schools in the coming months. Each mural takes dozens of hours, from design to execution, but he believes it is time well spent.
“I want to give back to the community that I grew up in, same thing with the school district” Kuffo said. “I’d like to give my artistic ability to kids who appreciate it. Yes, older people can appreciate it, but I think children’s reactions are the more important thing for me. So I don’t mind giving my free time doing something for them.”