Channel surfing his television in 2010, then 11-year-old J.P. Iacona happened upon a public access broadcast of the Village of Mineola Board of Trustees.
At the meeting, long-time village resident and Korean War veteran Bill Urianek spoke about collecting bottles and cans for recycling at five cents a piece to raise money for wounded Iraq war veteran Christopher Levi. Iacona knew what he wanted to do.
Iacona made his first donation to Urianek, now 88, from work turning in scrap metal, a total of $174. Since then, the pair has raised over $68,000 and were recently recognized by the village’s Board of Trustees for collecting over one million bottles and cans.
“Even at five cents each the bottles could be more,” Iacona said. “They have value.”
The effort from Urianek, Iacona and the support from surrounding communities is amazing and a testament to the holiday spirit, Mayor Scott Strauss said. Urianek would not shoulder all of the success himself.
“I wish I could stand up here and thank them all,” Urianek said. “But it’d be difficult to name them all.”
Urianek started collecting recyclables as early as 2004, when he was driving and just noticed two cans rolling along the highway. Urianek saw an opportunity, he said.
Iacona’s involvement at a young age matched with Urianek’s dedication far after he served his country were infectious, causing “a domino effect,” in the area, Iacona said.
Iacona was just a student at Covert Avenue School when he approached his principal about starting a program at the school to turn in bottles and cans. Since February 2011, the program has spread throughout other schools and districts, and have accounted for close to a quarter-million of the cans collected, which Urianek keeps track off himself.
Iacona worked with Urianek throughout his four years at Sewanhaka High School to grow the stream of donations and still does today.
Urianek handles a lot of the work himself. He collects the bottles at his home. When he isn’t around, he tells others they can just drop off the cans at his house for him to collect later. He spends time transporting and turning in the recyclables.
On one occasion several years ago, someone removed 800 bottles and cans left at the house and fled. In an attempt to correct the loss, a fundraiser was held at Cinelli’s Pizzeria in Franklin Square. 8,000 cans were turned in for donation in response.
To date, exactly 1,007,401 recyclables have been collected and $68,650 has been achieved through recycling, as well as additional donations. Community support has been critical, Iacona said.
In March 2008, Cpl. Levi, an Army Ranger, was severely injured by an IED in Iraq, losing both of his legs and suffering significant damage to his right arm.
Urianek and other community members donated thousands to Levi and his family in 2010, and in 2018 Levi moved into a new smart home to help him live a more comfortable life with his disabilities.
Local charities like the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and Warriors for a Cause were involved in the smart home project.
In the Summer of 2017, Urianek, affectionately nicknamed “the Can Man,” led Dutch Broadway Elementary School in Elmont in the annual Building Homes for Heroes Walk, assisting young students in turning in cans resulting in $2,250 for the organization.
Iacona’s grandfather was a Navy veteran, but he was never able to meet him. Helping Urianek felt like rekindling a relationship he was never able to make.
“Being able to help [Bill] made me feel like I was doing something to help the people that protect and serve this country,” Iacona said. “It makes me feel like a proud American”