Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

Farewell, Mr. Ferraiolo
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
Jan 9, 2014, 16:08

Vinny Ferraiolo’s facebook photo shows the teacher, pet shop owner.

CHESTERFIELD — Flames burn determinedly within a row of tall candles out front of an exotic pet shop in Chester, guarding a monument of flowers, balloons and memories, a tribute to a man who planted deep footprints in the surrounding community.

Vinny Ferraiolo, 48, a 17-year teacher at Thomas Dale High School and owner of Off the Ark Exotic Pets, was found dead in his pet store on Friday afternoon when emergency responders arrived on scene following an original call for cardiac arrest, according to Chesterfield authorities.

After a gathering of hundreds united outside of Off the Ark on Saturday evening, the front windows of Ferraiolo’s shop are now plastered with posters, notes and memorabilia that all share a message of love and remembrance for the impact he left upon those who knew him.

Crystal Speeks-Strohecker, who has known the Ferraiolo family for more than 10 years, said that a few words cannot do justice for the entire person that Vinny was, but that he was a compassionate, positive and enthusiastic individual who exuded friendliness to people he didn’t even know.

“From the first time anyone ever talked to him, you would feel like you were talking to a friend. It was impossible to not laugh when you were around him, and his smile and laughter [were] contagious,” Speeks-Strohecker said.

Even through times of despair and loss, Ferraiolo demonstrated strength and positivity to fuel a rebuilding process for him and his family, Speeks-Strohecker said.

Vinny leaves behind Cathy, his wife of 21 years, along with four children, Jacob, Luke, Nikolas and Faith.

“His wife and kids meant everything to him. No matter what you were talking to him  about, he always found a way to tie them into the conversation. He was always so proud of his wife and kids,” Speeks-Strohecker said.

Laci Welch, 19, who met Ferraiolo at Off the Ark when she was 11 and later had him as a teacher at Thomas Dale, said that he was unlike any other man that she had ever met.

“Anytime you thought of Vinny, you thought of his sense of humor, his smile and his very tender heart. He impacted so many lives in so many different ways,” Welch said.

Over the eight-year span that she knew Ferraiolo, Welch said she developed a growing bond with him and considered him almost like a father to her.

“To me, he was the dad I’ve always wanted. He gave me advice, kept me on the right path and always had my back when I needed somebody. He was the best friend, dad and teacher anybody could [have] ever asked for,” Welch said.

Ferraiolo grew up in South Carolina and discovered a fascination for animals at an early age, where he would collect small animals from outside and keep them under his bed, he said during a radio broadcast on Herpin Time Radio in December. HTR is dedicated to discussions related to reptiles and amphibians.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in education, which steered him down the path to Thomas Dale High School, where he primarily taught biology and earth science.

Starting an exotic pet business was never his intention, but rather a “side effect” of his passions, Ferraiolo said during the radio interview.

He had originally rented out a space for the breeding purposes of several varieties of pythons and boas, which grabbed the attention of a growing number of individuals who were interested in buying them, Ferraiolo said.
BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Thomas Dale High School pays tribute to Vinny Ferraiolo with a memorial in front of the school.

From there, he opened up Off the Ark in 2003, a local pet store specializing in reptiles that has expanded since its inception, moving locations to the current spot at 11334 Iron Bridge Road in 2007 and travelling for events at birthday parties, educational shows, Cub Scouts gatherings and YMCAs, Ferraiolo said.

Ferraiolo said that he would incorporate the animals from his shop into his lessons at school, emphasizing the importance of hands-on interaction to any education in science.

“It is biology. ... The biology part of it is outside,” Ferraiolo said during the interview.

He brought an “imaginative, creative and gutsy” energy to his students in an attempt to preserve a presence of fun within education, including sending a potato chip in the mail without breaking it and giving himself a mohawk if all the students passed, Speeks-Strohecker said.

Welch agreed that Ferraiolo would always bring a fun atmosphere to the classroom, providing easy ways for students to remember material.

“If you didn’t understand,  he made sure to go back and help you through it. ... Any student he had has loved him so incredibly much,” Welch said.

Rebecca Balint, 20, said she first met Ferraiolo during her junior year at Thomas Dale when he substituted for one of her classes, which became the most memorable class she had.

“He gave you 110 percent in his teachings. He wanted his students to pass and cared dearly for them,” Balint said.

Ever since that first class with Ferraiolo, Balint said that he always recognized her in the hallways, stopping to chat about animals and what new reptiles were in his store.

Balint worked at Petsmart and Ferraiolo coined the nickname “The Glider Girl” for her because she would help rescue sugar gliders (small, gliding marsupials) and help inform people who own them.

Balint said she is partly deaf, and had some rough times throughout high school, but that Ferraiolo was always a constant figure for her to be able to look to for guidance and help turn her day around.

“I could tell him anything.  I truly looked up to him. He was not only amazing with his students but with animals as well,” Balint said.

Alexis Paige Anderson, who created a charity fund online to garner donations to support Vinny’s family during this time, shared the same sentiment as so many other students who were taught by Ferraiolo.

“He truly went above and beyond the call of duty as a teacher and became a loved friend to so many. It’s so rare to find teachers who radiate positivity and an undeniable love and passion for their job and students like Mr. F did,” Anderson expressed in a post on the fund’s website.

The Ferraiolo Family Fund was created on Jan. 6 through to help raise money for Vinny’s family, and by Tuesday evening had received $230 in donations.

Anderson said that personalized ribbons will also be on sale at Off the Ark during business hours, costing $1 per ribbon of which the proceeds will also go to the Ferraiolo family.

Although Vinny may be physically gone, Balint said that Ferraiolo will have an everlasting presence in the community and in the hearts of those who knew him.

“I don’t think there’s an end to [his] story because what he did we will continue to do for others because  he still lives in all the people he has touched,” Balint said.

As of Tuesday, the cause of Ferraiolo’s death was still under investigation, however nothing appeared to be suspicious, said Elizabeth Caroon, spokesperson for the Chesterfield police.
Those who knew Vinny Ferraiolo blanketed the entrance to Off the Ark Exotic Pets with tokens of love and remembrance.

Funeral arrangements are by Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service. His funeral service is set for 11 a.m. today at Iron Bridge Baptist Church with interment will follow at Dale Memorial Park. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the Ferraiolo Kids fund at any Union Bank & Trust.

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