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‘Outstanding Citizens’ dedicate themselves to a better Orleans County

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 31 December 2018 at 8:24 pm

Every year since the Orleans Hub started in 2013 we’ve honored a group of people who made Orleans County better in the past year.

The steady drumbeat of depressing news can often give a warped view of the community, country and world by fixating on bad things. It can be very discouraging.

In Orleans County, we are fortunate to have many people dedicated to good works and improving the community. Sometimes they react in the spur of the moment, saving another person’s life. Sometimes it’s years of effort before they see the fruit of their labors. And, sometimes after suffering a painful personal tragedy, they will step forward to help others.

Here are some people who stood out in the past year:

Police Sgt. runs 50 hours straight to benefit Special Olympics

Provided photo: Brett Sobieraski runs the final stretch of a 50-hour journey on July 15, carrying a torch for the Special Olympics. He started in Buffalo on July 11 and would run more than 6 1/2 consecutive marathons in six different counties. He finished the challenge at the State Police Trooper Barracks in Elbridge, a town in Onondaga County, west of Syracuse.

Brett Sobieraski, a Kent resident and sergeant with the Rochester Police Department, ran over 175 miles for 50 hours nonstop to raise money and awareness for Special Olympics.

Sobieraski started his journey in Buffalo on July 13 and ran along the Erie Canal to just outside Syracuse. He ran through Orleans County the first night of the challenge. He called it the 50 for 50 running campaign to signify 50 hours of running for the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics.

Sobieraski set a $10,000 fundraising goal and topped that with $13,000. He was joined by many first responders for parts of the run, and finished the last leg carrying a torch alongside people with disabilities.

He called the Special Olympics, “a phenomenal organization that helps to transform the lives of those with intellectual disabilities.”

Sobieraski, sergeant with the Rochester Police Department, ran more than 6 1/2 consecutive marathons in six different counties. He turned 52 while he was running the 50 for 50. He has completed other endurance challenges including the 135-mile Badlands ultramarathon through Death Valley and has swum 32 miles across Lake Ontario.

He posted this message on Facebook after finishing the 50-hour run:

“Inclusiveness – that is what the Special Olympics means to me. That everyone who wants to compete in the Games should have the opportunity to do so. People experience their own personal greatness by competing, breaking through barriers and obtaining their goals. That is why I am doing this. Please consider donating so that willing athletes are not left on the sidelines. To those who have already donated, I sincerely thank you.”

Clarendon Boy Scout leader inspires many to pursue excellence

Photo by Tom Rivers: These six Boy Scouts are pictured with Scoutmaster Jak Kohmann on Aug. 1 at a Court of Honor celebration at the Disciples United Methodist Church in Clarendon. Pictured from left include: Xander Apicella, Matt DeSimone, Dalton Thurley, Jak Kohmann, William Harrington, Jake DeSimone and Ben Downey.

Jak Kohmann has set a standard of excellence for Troop 59 in Clarendon. In the past 16 years, 32 of the Boy Scouts in the troop have earned their Eagle rank, the highest level in Scouting.

On Aug. 1, six Scouts were presented with the rank during a Court of Honor celebration. They include Xander Apicella, Matt DeSimone, Dalton Thurley, William Harrington, Jake DeSimone and Ben Downey.

Kohmann was praised by the Scouts and parents for his commitment and guidance to the Scouts, especially since his son aged out of the program about a decade ago. His son Derek Kohmann, 27, was the third of the 32 scouts to earn his Eagle under Jak Kohmann.

Kohmann worked 30 years at Kodak and then another eight years at the Holley Pharmacy until he retired in April. He said scouting provided a needed break from the stresses of his job.

He said the Scouts are hard workers. “They do the work,” Kohmann told the group gathered for the Court of Honor on Aug. 1. “They have a true commitment.”

The Clarendon troop also has many engaged parents and several active volunteers. Kohmann does the paperwork after the scouts earn their badges and ranks.

Eagle Scouts need to earn at least 21 merit badges, but many of the scouts in Clarendon go well beyond that. They have completed projects at Hillside Cemetery, the Clarendon Historical Society, Clarendon Fire Hall and the town park. The projects need to take at least 100 hours, but Kohmann said the Clarendon Scouts put in at least 150, with some taking 400 hours to complete.

“They turn into young men and they get jobs,” Kohmann said about the Eagle Scouts. “We stay in touch and I see these people out in the community and they are pillars of the community.”

John Crandall, the assistant Scoutmaster the past nine years, said Kohmann sets the tone in the troop, and keeps the scouts engaged.

“Jak is very regimented and available for the boys,” Crandall said. “You won’t find someone more dedicated to Boy Scouts. He makes it attainable to the boys.”

After tragic loss of son, Albion natives promote flu vaccination

Photo by Tom Rivers: Tony and Laura Sidari are pictured on Aug. 27 on a visit home to Albion. Tony is holding son Tristan, 2, while Laura is holding son Cameron, who was 9 months old at the time.

Albion natives Tony Sidari and the former Laura Lyman suffered the tragic loss of their son Leon, 4 1/2, on Christmas Day in 2017. Leon died two days after getting the flu. He was a very healthy and happy boy.

The Sidaris are both medical doctors. They have become very outspoken in urging people to get flu vaccinations. Leon hadn’t been vaccinated from the flu last year. At an Oct. 8 flu shot clinic in Albion, 59 children were vaccinated at Orleans Community Health. That clinic was made possible through Leon’s Fund, a non-profit organization the Sidaris helped form that promotes flu shots. Leon’s Fund also has money to be given to help children with medical problems at Christmas time.

Orleans Community Health also has educated about 2,500 parents in Orleans County, encouraging them to have their children vaccinated from the flu.

The Sidaris were living in San Antonio for six years before moving recently to Dayton, Ohio.

They said Leon was very healthy and started showing flu symptoms on Dec. 23. Within 48 hours he died despite the efforts of a medical team at the hospital. Leon had been vaccinated for the flu in prior years and was due for a flu shot soon after Christmas. He died from the strain of the virus called H3N2.

Leon Sidari

The Sidaris say young, healthy children can be ravaged by the flu. They are encouraging all children, 6 months or older, to be vaccinated.

Parents should have the children vaccinated every year to build their immunity in fighting off the flu, the Sidaris said. They urge children to be vaccinated early in the flu season in September or October.

“The flu shot reduces the risk of severe complications,” Tony said during a visit to Albion in August.

Tony and Laura grew up together in Albion, attending the same preschool. Tony graduated from Albion in 2003 with Laura finishing Albion a year later. They were in the marching band together. They started dating at Cornell University.

They both earned licenses as medical doctors with Laura working as a psychiatrist and Tony as a rheumatologist. They are both in the Air Force.

Man pulls pilot from flaming wreckage after helicopter crash

Photo courtesy of Dirk Climenhaga: This helicopter crashed on April 24 and burst into flames on Route 279 in Gaines.

Mark Bennett Sr.

Mark Bennett Sr., 60, of Waterport was driving by the Gaines Valley Aviation Airport on Route 279 when he saw a small experimental helicopter in the sky. It was about 2 p.m. on April 24.

Bennett pulled over to watch the aircraft, which was flown by Alan Heard, 64, of Waterport. Something went horribly wrong with the Mosquito XE and it crashed. Bennett reacted quickly. He climbed through an electric fence and ran to the crash site. The aircraft had burst into flames. Heard was on fire. Bennett cut Heard’s shirt off, rolled him over to put out the flames and pulled him from the wreck.

“It’s the grace of God that he’s alive right now,” Bennett said on April 24. “I can’t believe he survived the crash, let alone the fire.”

Law enforcement said Bennett saved Heard’s life. They praised his quick actions.

Dirk Climenhaga lives next to the field when the helicopter crashed and called 911. He was the second person on the scene.

“Mark is a hero,” Climenhaga said.

For one weekend Medina school turned into unforgettable showcase for artists

Photos by Tom Rivers: Michael Hungerford had the vision and drive for the big art show at the former Medina High School.

Michael Hungerford read about a vacant warehouse in New York City that was turned into art installations. The event drew huge crowds to the warehouse, and pumped energy into a site that had seen better days.

Hungerford works as regional director for Takeform in Medina. As he read about the success of the art project at the New York City site, he envisioned a similar project in Medina.

The former Medina High School was vacated over the summer, the MAAC Clothing Store and Calvary Tabernacle Assembly of God Church moved out. Hungerford’s uncle Roger Hungerford is planning to renovate the former school into apartments. But first he is focused on restoring the Bent’s Opera House on Main Street.

The former school on Catherine Street was sitting empty and Michael Hungerford suggested it be used for a major immersive art project. His uncle agreed and for one weekend in October, about 1,000 went through the building to see 29 different art projects in what was called “PLAY/GROUND.”

Artists were given free rein to create in old classrooms, stairwells, hallways and other space in the school.

“It is so far beyond my expectations,” Michael Hungerford said on Oct. 13. “The work is amazing.”

Virginia Melynk of Buffalo is shown with her creation using triangular shapes made out of spandex that utilize geometric patterns. She was one of 29 artists featured in a major art show at the former Medina High School.

Artists submitted proposals to be included in PLAY/GROUND. Hungerford worked with gallery owners in Buffalo to coordinate the exhibits.

The three-day show drew many people to Medina who had never been to Orleans County. Michael Hungerford is hopeful some of the visitors, including the participating artists, will help build an arts culture in the Medina community. The low-cost rents in the Medina area may also appeal to the artists and some may decide to live and work in Orleans County.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing the response to Medina, even from the artists who like it,” Hungerford said. “They see cheaper property, which appeals to them because many artists are on a limited budget. This project has planted a seed to get people to Medina, and to the younger people here to see that something like this exists.”

Holley woman is dynamic coach, fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House

Penny Cole, center, has organized several benefits for the Ronald McDonald House in recent years at Holley. She is shown on March 12 at a charity basketball in Holley between school staff and law enforcement officers in Orleans County. She is reading off the winning ticket in a 50-50 raffle. Matt DeSimone, left, is a Holley student who served as announcer for the game. Julia Buck, the cheerleader, was hospitalized for five days in Rochester in the summer of 2017 after a boating accident at Brockport. Her mother was able to stay in the Ronald McDonald House.

Penny Cole is a dynamic presence at Holley’s Junior-Senior High School. She works as a secretary in the guidance department. She also is a dedicated cheerleading coach in Holley. She inspires her cheerleaders to perform their intricate and athletic routines. They have won several Genesee-Region League titles.

Penny Cole and her daughter Heather Kelley, co-coaches of the Holley varsity cheerleading team, are pictured with “The Little House That Love Built” in March 2017. The house was taken to the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester.

The cheerleaders also do many community service projects, including visits to local nursing homes.

Cole has become a passionate fund-raiser for the Ronald McDonald House. She engages the entire school community in her fund-raising efforts, whether it be a charity basketball game with numerous gift baskets, or a the chance to buy a shingle on a doll house. That doll house – The Little House That Love Built – netted $2,050 for the Ronald McDonald House in 2017. The refurbished mini-house is displayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester.

The Ronald McDonald House provides a place for families to stay while their children are hospitalized. Penny Cole has organized several benefits for the Ronald McDonald House in recent years at Holley. In March she was honored with a community service award from the Ronald McDonald House.

Cole is a beloved member of the Holley community. She gets strong support for her fund-raising efforts. There were more than 300 people at the charity basketball game on March 12. It was a fun, circus-like atmosphere with the teachers and staff playing law enforcement officers. (The Holley teachers and staff won, 60-32.)

The event raised $4,444, by far the most in the 12 years Holley has been raising money for the Ronald McDonald House.

Author honors pioneer Orleans County residents with book

Melissa Ostrom’s book, published by Macmillan, highlights courage of pioneers who settled in WNY.

Melissa Ostrom of Holley wrote a book published by Macmillan in March that honors the courage and resourcefulness of pioneer settlers in Orleans County and Western New York.

In The Beloved Wild, Ostrom brings life to pioneer characters. The pioneers were typically just teen-agers when they set out from New England to brave a hard journey by wagon, through dense forests, to get to Orleans County and Western New York.

There wasn’t a map. The pioneers followed markings on trees as they made their way west.

The pioneer settlers were incredibly resourceful in taming the land, building homes and farms in the frontier. The obstacles were many – sickness, uninvited strangers, alcoholism, abuse.

Ostrom, a former Kendall high school English teacher, writes about those challenges and the indomitable spirit of pioneer settlers.

The Beloved Wild is a debut young adult fiction novel. Harriet Winter is the main character in the book. She is expected to stay home in New England and cook and tend to her younger siblings. She refuses. She disguises herself as a boy and joins her brother on the epic trip to the Wild West – the Town of Gaines.

Ostrom was honored on April 26 by the Orleans County Historical Association for her work in helping so many people to better understand and appreciate the pioneer settlers.

Leonel Rosario builds successful restaurant, shares the Mexican culture

Leonel Rosario, chef and co-owner of Mariachi de Oro Restaurant of Medina, helped prepare and serve food on Aug. 2 during the third annual Farm-To-Table dinner in Medina, which included a record crowd of 220 people. “I love being a part of the community and working together with all of the other businesses,” Rosario said.

Leonel Rosario has worked with his family to create a popular Mexican restaurant on Maple Ridge Road in Medina. Mariachi de Oro Restaurant of Medina draws people from all over Western New York, and has received many glowing reviews in The Buffalo News and other publications. Mariachi de Oro in 2017 was named “Business of the year” by the Orleans County Chamber of Commerce.

Rosario is busy as the chef and co-owner of the business. He finds time for many community events, welcoming the chance to share food and dances about the Mexican culture.

Leonel Rosario takes a photo of the ofrenda he created for the Day of the Dead celebration in downtown Medina on Nov. 1. Several of his family members were part of the occasion, dancing and preparing food for the community.

This year on Nov. 1 he helped organize a Day of the Dead celebration, which for the first time was in downtown Medina. Rosario previously hosted a scaled-down version of the Day of the Dead at Mariachi.

Moving it to the downtown was a way to include Main Street businesses and have more room to share food and the festive dances.

Rosario created an ofrenda, an altar that is intended to welcome returning souls. Rosario made the ofrenda in the style of his hometown in Oaxaca, Mexico. The large display featured candles, wild marigolds, incense, photographs, mementos and loved ones’ favorite foods like fruit, tortillas, tamales, chocolate and bread.

The event on Nov. 1 was a chance to learn about and enjoy the Mexican holiday, which is a time of joyful remembrance of deceased loved ones.

Rosario also is active in the very popular Farm-To-Table dinner in downtown Medina. Rosario has worked with Michael Zambito of Zambistros the past two years with the fine dining experience. This year it was expanded to include Mile 303, Sourced Market & Eatery and The Shirt Factory Cafe.

Rosario is generous with his time and can be counted on to enthusiastically join with others for community events.

After daughter’s death, Medina mother has become advocate for families fighting addiction

Tami Ashton speaks during a community event about some of the services available to help people fighting addiction.

Tami Ashton of Medina knows the pain of losing a loved one to addiction. Her daughter, Christina Ashton, died from a drug overdose on June 27, 2016. Christina had been clean for 19 days. Her mother left the house for a 40-minute errand. When she came back, she found her daughter slumped over and not breathing in Ashton’s backyard. Someone dropped off heroin and her daughter took all of it. Christina was 34.

Ashton has shared her story publicly, trying to break the stigma of addiction. She also has been an important leader of Orleans – Recovery Hope Begins Here, a new organization that connects people struggling with drug addiction to local resources and mentors. Ashton is vice president of the organization.

The group has also led community forums about addiction and helped families in crisis connect to professionals.

Orleans – Recovery Hope Begins Here also has 12 trained mentors and counting to serve as recovery coaches for people with addictions.

“We’re done burying our kids,” Ashton said at one recent forum. “We need to come together as a community and do something and the time is now.”

Ashton became trained to be an addiction recovery coach for the Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.

She encourages people to be honest about the drug crisis in their own lives, their families and communities – and to then seek help in fighting the addictions.

“It’s killing our children and destroying our families,” Ashton said.

Waterport man was dedicated to promoting peace, serving children from war-torn areas

Some members of the World Life Institute including Chris Wilson, center, stand at attention after raising the American flag on April 2, 2016 when the organization held a dedication service for The Colonnade, the former Medina Masonic Temple at 229 West Center St. The Colonnade is the world-wide headquarters for World Life Institute, which runs humanitarian and educational programs in several countries. These WLI members Chad Scott, left, and Ameen Ghani, right, both served in the military. Wilson served as World Life’s international director of the Project Life program. That program has hosted about 130 children from war-torn Bosnia, Afghanistan and Chechnya for a summer of peace and education.

Orleans County and the world lost a man dedicated to peace and serving children from war-torn countries on May 28 when Christopher Wilson died after a brief battle with a rare form of cancer.

Wilson traveled to Afghanistan many times, and worked with the U.S. and Afghanistan embassies so children who were made orphans by war could come to Orleans County for a summer of respite and fun.

Wilson served as international director of Project Life, which brought about 130 children to Orleans County for a summer of recuperation. The children stayed with local host families, including with Wilson and his wife Deborah and their son Samuel. The kids learned English, visited many tourism sites, and mostly had care-free summer days. Three of the children had medical issues and needed to stay longer. Wilson worked out medical plans for each of them, arranging for their care and donations.

Wilson was a high-energy and compassionate person, who wouldn’t be discouraged even when the task seemed insurmountable. He was diagnosed with a rare cancer in April and died about a month later. From his hospital bed he sent emails from his laptop, advocating for children.

“I have never met anyone who worked harder than he did,” Linda Redfield, Project Life director, said today about Wilson. “He was instrumental in everything we did. It was really based on his heart and hard work.”

Wilson stayed in contact with many of the children in the program. They have become leaders in their countries now that they are adults.

He was also instrumental in the World Life Institute’s purchase of the former Masonic Lodge on West Center Street in Medina. That building in 2016 became The Colonnade, the world-wide headquarters for World Life Institute. The Colonnade has hosted educational programs, including a five-part lecture series on global nuclear awareness.

Project Life had a 20th anniversary celebration on Aug. 16, 2017 at the WLI school on Stillwater Road in Waterport. The WLI building has been used for numerous art classes and other programming for the children the past two decades. There have been numerous intense soccer games played in the backyard.

A big group of former host families and other program supporters attended the anniversary gathering. Wilson was among the speakers.

“We can feel proud in our own small way we’ve done something good,” he said that day. “I personally don’t think it’s small. There is so much evil in the world that any good should be celebrated.”

Orleans Hub will have an awards program to recognize the Outstanding Citizens in early 2019.

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