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Eastchester Couple Leaves A Legacy of Creativity and Caring

Eastchester Players Club Director John Gwardyak and Jazz Co. Director Karen Zambelli-Gwardyak took their final bows last month as they prepare to depart from the Eastchester School District. The husband-and-wife team trained and nurtured thousands of students over 30 years, teaching them acting, dancing, and skills to use throughout their lives.

“We do what we do for the kids, and we teach them in a way that every person learns and gets something out of the experience,” said Karen. “They are not up there just dancing.”

In the 1980’s, Karen and John both taught in the Mount Vernon School District after actually attending Mount Vernon High School together. In high school they traveled in different circles, only to reunite in performing and in life. John was hired as the Technical Director for the Auditorium in Eastchester and recommended Karen as the Players Club Choreographer and then Eastchester High School Jazz Co. 

The couple focused on the technical aspects of their craft and a more profound mission. They created a safe environment which the students considered a family even calling them mom and dad.

“I have seen students develop, grow and change. One student did not speak all through Eastchester Middle School, and by senior year, she was up there on the stage singing and dancing. Everyone in the club is part of that story.”

The couple’s peers witnessed the transformation first-hand. School Counselor Heather Reilly who co-directs Jazz Co. commented, “They truly affect and inspire students. John and Karen have left a lasting impression on each student helping them discover who they are. They didn’t just create shows, they shaped lives.” 

As Karen reflects on her time in Eastchester, she wants her legacy to be an appreciation of the arts. “Whether they pursue the arts as a career or just enjoy it, the fact that they were able to participate is vital. Participation in the arts is a different experience than participating in anything else.”

Both agree the arts foster self-esteem and witness that when they encounter alumni. John added, “We give them the basics of how to carry themselves and speak in front of a crowd. They have more confidence.”

Both current students and former students expressed their gratitude during a virtual roast as they recalled their days on stage fondly. Players Club Vice President Joseph Cartalano said he will always remember John and Karen’s positive attitude and joyful outlook on life. 

John Gwardyak and Karen Zambelli have provided me with an environment where I was able to think on my feet quickly, take responsibility as a club officer, and also helped me figure out who I am as a person by being so kind and caring towards everyone in the club,” said Joseph. 

EHS Principal Dr. Jeffrey Capuano praised the two leaders for their dedication. “John and Karen are a powerful team who have had significant influence on a large number of students.  Not only did they help our best dancers, actors, and singers grow in their craft, but they found ways to help all students who entered their sphere of influence.  They are an amazing duo!”

The couple credits a team of talented adults who share their expertise with the success of both activities.  Next year, Melissa Lieto-Cuomo and Heather Reilly will take on the lead role in Jazz Co. with Suzanne Wilson, Clare Connelly and Melissa Crai.

Alex Fletcher and Jeremy Messmer are taking the helm of the Players Club but John and Karen aren’t cutting all ties with Eastchester. This summer, they will take a cruise on which a former Players Club member is performing. The two have worked with students in Bronxville and Rye in addition to guiding Eagles; traveling is all they have planned for now. 

“We want a year to do nothing because we have always busy doing something,” said Karen. John chimed in, “That (doing nothing) may make us nuts! We’ll see!” 

When the couple announced their retirement, many people asked for one more show. “I had a colleague who once told me, when you are putting together a concert, always leave the audience wishing there was one more number than one less number,” said John. That is precisely how the audience felt when John and Karen made their final appearance on stage this May at “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”