Outstanding Citizens in 2021 improved community in many ways

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 10 January 2022 at 1:31 pm

Each year since the Orleans Hub started in 2013 we’ve honored a group of Outstanding Citizens who stood out the past year for extraordinary contributions to improve the community.

This past year many residents pushed projects through to completion or stepped up as volunteers in response to difficult circumstances. Orleans County is fortunate to have many citizens who give of their time, talent and money, with the main focus to make this a better place to live.

Skate Society president led push for new skate park in Medina

Alex Feig, president of the Medina Skate Society, holds a skateboard during a ground-breaking celebration on June 2 for a new skate park in Medina at Butts Park.

For more than four years Alex Feig organized fundraisers, wrote grant applications and worked with village and community leaders on a dream: a new skate park in Medina.

The $550,000 project became a reality in 2021. The Luke Nelson Skatepark was dedicated on Sept. 4 to a late skateboarder from Middleport whose family also was influential in raising money and building support for the project.

The new skatepark has already proven an attraction, bringing in skateboarders from throughout the area as well as drawing new people to the sport from Medina.

Feig worked with the Village Board and the Medina Skate Society to line up $250,000 in donations from the community, which allowed Medina to maximize a $250,000 matching grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. The Skate Society also secured $42,000 for an Environmental Impact Award grant by The Skatepark Project, formerly the Tony Hawk Foundation. That money goes towards storm water management and bioswales.

The new skate park in Medina has elements for skaters at all skill levels, from beginners to intermediate and more advanced.

The previous skate park was a repurposed tennis court that had cracks and old equipment. The village DPW took out the old asphalt and Spohn Ranch Skateparks built the new setup, which include 2.5-foot to 4-foot quarter pipes, a 2.5-foot mini-ramp/beginner bowl section, a fun box, hubbas (grind ledges) and grind rails, a kidney-shaped bowl begins at 5 feet and waterfalls down to 7 feet. The most prominent feature faces South Main Street is a functional art installation (steep slant) that is 9 feet tall and 24 feet wide.

“On behalf of the village board, I thank you for adding to the quality of life in Medina,” Mayor Mike Sidari said during a ribbon-cutting on Sept. 4.

Kids and some adults have fun at the new skate park on Sept. 1.

Holley teen inspired in courageous battle against leukemia, pushed to finish Eagle Scout project

A group of Boy Scouts and other community members gather on June 5 for the dedication of an Eagle Scout project led by Evan Valentine. He inspired a team of scouts and volunteers to build a veterans’ wall around the war memorial in Holley by the Post Office and the American Legion.

Evan Valentine passed away from leukemia at age 18 on Feb. 21. He fought the disease for 2 ½ years and inspired the Holley community with his optimism and perseverance through it all.

Evan Valentine

He also stayed focused on a life goal: becoming an Eagle Scout. While he was hospitalized in December 2020, he earned the final merit badge for the Eagle.

He also had the plans ready for his community service project to attain Scout’s highest rank. After Evan passed away, his fellow scouts and community members completed the Eagle project: a veterans’ wall around the war memorial in Holley on Route 31 next to the Post Office and the American Legion.

The wall was dedicated on June 5. The stone wall includes a sitting area in front with an inscription, “Forever Remembered – Forever Missed.”

Evan approached former Legion Commander John Pera about the project back in 2018. Evan and his father Neil researched the stones and dimensions to build the veterans’ wall.

“The main part of an Eagle project is the planning and providing direction to the volunteers to make the project a success,” Evan’s friend and fellow scout Andrew Drechsel said during the dedication. “Evan completed all of this. He facilitated this project from the beginning and wanted to be a part of each step. As much as he wanted to be there, the volunteers knew it might not be possible and they worked to get the project completed on Evan’s behalf.”

The wall includes a plaque noting the project was the result of Evan Valentine’s community service requirement to be an Eagle Scout.

Jim McMullen, the Scout executive for the Iroquois Trail Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said he was inspired by Evan’s determination to obtain Scouting’s highest rank, and to take on an important project for the Holley community.

“I think it’s very profound that he wanted this last piece for the community,” McMullen said on June 5. “He is an Eagle Scout and he earned it. He provided the leadership to get the project done.”

Evan was an active student at Holley, playing on the soccer and golf teams, and was enthusiastic member of the music programs. He was confirmed at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and was the altar server of the year in 2018 in the Western New York Diocese.

Business owner brings optimism, can-do attitude to Albion

Natasha Wasuck holds her daughter, Ephy, then 3 ½ when Tinsel opened in June 2019 in Albion. Wasuck and her husband John Hernandez have since opened a wedding and events center in Albion, while pushing through several community projects.

A Spencerport resident has become one of Albion’s biggest promoters through her business and several community projects.

Natasha Wasuck and her husband John Hernandez have transformed a former auto repair shop along the Erie Canal into The Lockstone, a weddings and events center. Part of the building also is an ice cream shop, Tinsel. The Lockstone brought thousands of people to Albion for about 30 weddings in 2021 and is booked for about 50 marriage ceremonies and receptions in 2022.

Wasuck works in real estate and saw lots of promise in the former vacant building right next to the canal. She also sees Albion as a gem, with its historic architecture, small-town feel and role as home to the first Santa Claus School, which was operated by the late Charles W. Howard from 1937 to 1966.

She named the ice cream store as Tinsel to connect to a Christmas theme. She also raised the funds and hired the artist for a Santa-themed mural on the Lake Country Pennysaver building next door to the Lockstone.

She has helped organize events through the Albion Merchants Association, from wine-tastings to Christmas celebrations to welcoming hundreds of cyclists on the canal. She also pushed to start a farmers’ market on Main Street in 2021.

Wasuck took the lead in connecting with other downtown building owners to apply for a Main Street grant through the state. Albion was awarded $311,079 in 2021 through that program that will help 10 of the downtown building owners as well as provide $47,613 for streetscape improvements.

Wasuck also served on a committee that identified ways to better utilize the Erie Canal in Orleans County.

“We see this as an opportunity to ‘create the community you want to be a part of’ here in Albion,” she said in July. “We recognize the importance of the Erie Canal for tourism and appreciate the unique history this village has to offer.”

Justin Suarez works on a mural in 2020 that celebrates Albion’s role as home to the first Santa Claus School. The north stucco wall was transformed into a winter scene, with a prominent reindeer, snowy owl, and a Santa’s outstretched hand in a white glove. The wall acts as a welcome sign, proclaiming Albion as “Home of the original Santa School.”

Medina man creates Bluebird Trail – 168 birds fledged from 45 bird houses in first year

Daniel Rosentreter is pictured at State Street Park in Medina where he installed several new birdhouses.

Daniel Rosentreter enjoys wildlife and believes seeing and hearing birds lifts the spirits of local residents.

However, many of the nesting areas for birds have been removed with dead or decaying trees taken down in the Medina community. Those trees had cavities for birds to make nests and lay eggs.

Rosentreter, 29, worked with the Village Board and the DPW to get permission to install 45 birdhouses as part of a new Medina Memorial Bluebird Trail. The birdhouses proved popular spots for birds to nest this spring and summer.

There were 168 birds fledged from the boxes – 124 house wrens, 29 bluebirds and 15 tree swallows.

Rosentreter recruited volunteers to install the bird houses near the perimeter of Boxwood Cemetery, Butts Park, Gulf Park, Lions Park, Pine Street Park and State Street Park. The bird houses are set up on ¾-inch galvanized electrical pipe.

Rosentreter checked the boxes weekly to see if there was any activity, and he took photos of what he saw with his phone and posted the pictures on the Facebook page for the Medina Memorial Bluebird Trail.

Sometimes he opened the box to see a bird on the nest, getting ready to lay an egg. He has pictures of the eggs, freshly hatched babies and feathered birds ready to fledge and leave the nest.

“We’re helping them to repopulate,” said Rosentreter, a wildlife photographer and customer service representative for a local insurance company. “They will go wherever they can find a house.”

The Medina Village Board also deserves credit for giving residents a chance to move forward with projects, providing encouragement and some assistance in working through bureaucracy and seeing the projects to fruition.

Albion man leads effort to upgrade long-time Little League field at Sandstone Park

Bruce Sidari speaks on June 6 during the season-opener for the Sandstone Park team in the Albion Midget League.

The kids at Sandstone Park in Albion have been playing youth baseball games at the East State Street diamond for more than 60 years. A group of volunteers keep up the field. It’s not a village or town park.

In 2021, the team celebrated a series of upgrades to field. Bruce Sidari is part of three generations of Sidaris who have been involved with the team. His kids and grandkids have aged out of Little League but Sidari remains a fan of the team – and the park, which is located next to his mother’s home.

Sidari rallied the Sandstone alumni and other team backers for $30,000 of improvements to the field. Sandstone is an original member of the Albion Midget League, which started in 1956. Sandstone has fielded a team every year and won the championship this past season.

The league once had 18 teams and is down to four. There are fewer kids locally these days compared to decades ago and baseball has lost some of its popularity.

But Sidari still feels pride for Sandstone Park and wants the team to play in a place they can be proud of.

The upgrades at the field include a new flag pole, overhauled dugouts and a backstop, a new scoreboard, an inscribed stone in the shape of a home plate thanking the founders of the park, and a new outfield fence.

Sidari played on the team beginning in 1957. His son Geoff played for Sandstone and so did grandson Patrick Ricker.

“This a special place to us and always will be,” Sidari told the crowd on June 6. “I’d like to salute everyone who has contributed over these last 65 years. I think this field and this team speaks volumes about the quality of the men and women – all the participants – who supported their efforts.”

Sandstone Park gets ready for its season opener on June 6 with an overhauled home field.

Kathy Blackburn leads many efforts at Medina – planting trees, promoting small businesses, honoring veterans and keeping up historic cemetery

Kathy Blackburn is very busy in Medina as Tree Board chairwoman, small business promoter (here dressed as Snow White during Beggar’s Night), and as the Wreaths Across America coordinator at Boxwood Cemetery.

When Medina village officials need a project done, they often turn to Kathy Blackburn. She heads the Tree Board, the Boxwood Cemetery Commission and heads up the Wreaths Across America effort each December.

She also serves on the Planning Board, is active in the Medina Area Partnership that puts on many of the events and small business promotions, and also serves on the committee trying to land a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative. Medina has just missed out on the grant in recent years. She recently finished a project as chairwoman of a committee for a local waterfront development plan that identifies ways to better utilize the canal and Oak Orchard Creek.

Blackburn, as leader of the Boxwood Commission, has been able to remove dangerous trees and upgrade the historic cemetery on North Gravel Road. She wants to make improvements to the chapel and bring more events to the cemetery, including walking tours.

As Wreaths Across America coordinator, that effort has grown from seven wreaths on veterans’ graves in 2013 to 315 last month. Blackburn said she has commitments for wreaths in December 2022 at all veterans’ graves at Boxwood and also St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Blackburn has connections throughout the community, from Scout troops to teachers to state legislators, and she calls on them for many projects to make Medina better, whether planting new trees, honoring veterans, promoting small businesses or just making the community more fun.

She also heads up an annual Faery Festival in Medina and dresses up in costume for the annual Beggar’s Night in the downtown, when nearly 1,000 kids go door to door at businesses. She is a can-do person who is a key part of Medina’s success.

For more than 40 years, Community Action employee helped people in crisis

Annette Finch stands with Barry Flansburg outside Community Action in Albion on Dec. 17, 2016 when the Albion FFA delivered 33,000 pounds of produce to support local food pantries. Finch forged strong partnerships with many local organizations, bringing food, clothing and other supplies to residents in need.

Annette Finch retired last month after working 44 years on the front lines of helping local people in need work through a crisis.

Annette Finch is shown with a motorcyclist wearing a Santa suit in September 2013 in a motorcycle ride that supported kids served by Community Action.

It was a high-stress job for Finch, director of emergency services for the agency. She managed food drives, toy drives and other events to bring in resources for people served by the agency. Those efforts were often in the news. Finch did a lot behind the scenes in helping people to not have utilities shut off and find emergency housing.

She was a steady presence, a voice of encouragement and master problem solver for people in very challenging predicaments.

In the past year in a half, when her career was winding down, Finch took the reins of managing food distributions in Albion and Holley. She worked with the Office for the Aging to organize the events, where several hundred people showed up early to get boxes of food.

She also ran the annual Red Kettle drive, lining up volunteers to be bell ringers. About $25,000 a year was collected to support people served by Community Action.

Finch built up a big network in her career – from social workers to state legislators – and she used those connections to help people in need.

“She would advocate continuously for children, seniors and families,” said Bonnie Malakie, director of Children’s and Youth Services at Community Action. “Our agency’s mission statement says, ‘To provide services with dignity and respect to help people become self-sufficient.’ Annette epitomizes that goal.”

Major restoration completed at one of Medina’s most prominent buildings

Roger Hungerford in 2021 reopened the Bent’s Opera House after a painstaking restoration over several years.

In recent years construction crews have transformed the Bent’s Opera House from a dilapidated structure into a reborn site with a restaurant on the first floor, hotel rooms on the second floor and an events center on the third level of a building that opened in 1865.

Roger Hungerford speaks during Dec. 9 in the Bent’s Opera House events center. He was recognized by Leadership Orleans as a distinguished leader in the community.

Roger Hungerford led the transformation of the site, which is one of downtown’s most prominent structures.

The site had been vacant for many years and fallen into disrepair. The rehab proved a daunting challenge and construction was slowed due to Covid restrictions in 2020.

A new restaurant opened in June and the rest of the building came alive later in the year. It is a first-class destination for Medina and Orleans County.

“What I expected to be a several million dollar project turned out to be much more,” Hungerford said in an interview in September 2019. “Still, it is on a key corner of my hometown and I knew I could develop multiple businesses within it that would result in it being economically rebirthed.”

Bent’s Hall was built in 1864-65 by well-known sandstone builder and Medina native, Patrick O’Grady. Built at the height of the Civil War and the Lincoln presidency, it is one of the oldest surviving opera houses in the United States.

The Orleans Renaissance Group did some initial stabilization of the site in 2014. The most pressing need was the rapid deterioration of the main beam carrying the entire Main Street façade, most notably the southeast corner of the building. The beam had deteriorated to a point where the corner was visibly shifting and in danger of collapsing.

The non-profit ORG didn’t have the resources to tackle the entire building. Hungerford agreed to take on the project and he said he saw it through completion out of love for his hometown.

Hungerford also is working to turn the former Medina High School into apartments. He also owns the Olde Pickle Factory, which offers premier manufacturing space for Baxter Healthcare, which makes infusion pumps and other medical supplies.

Hungerford has shown he can see the most challenging projects to completion, and do them in a top-notch fashion. The Bent’s Opera House makeover is a gift to the community.

Medina business finds new way to help community celebrate holidays

Takeform created a gratitude display at Rotary Park to help the community reflect on blessings during a time of challenge.

Takeform in Medina has been a big part of Medina’s Parade of Lights and the Olde Tyme Christmas celebration in recent years, twice winning for best float.

Bill Hungerford

In December 2020 it lined Rotary Park in the downtown with typography about the Christmas season.

This past year the company led by Bill Hungerford took a new focus of wanting to help the community reflect on thankfulness, especially during a time of suffering and disruption from Covid-19.

Takeform employees were out in cold on Nov. 27 at a booth on Main Street during Olde Tyme Christmas, asking people what they are thankful for in their lives. The 350 quotes submitted are part of a display that will be up until mid-January. Some of the messages include gratitude for family, organ donors, deer season, chocolate and “This Wonderful, Friendly Town of Medina.”

Hungerford also has taken a company from nine workers in 2003 to about 200 now. Takeform continues to grow, adding full-time employees in engineering, graphic design, sales, customer service, project management, machining, fabrication, engraving and assembly.

Hungerford stresses community service for his employees and strives to take care of its workers, said Darlene Hartway, Chamber of Commerce executive director. The Chamber named Takeform its business of the year in 2021.

Takeform adapted quickly during the Covid-19 pandemic and assisted many businesses with signage and partitions to meet state regulations for keeping businesses open to the public. The company retooled to offer floor markers, protective shields, sanitizer/PPE stations and other products during the pandemic.

Hungerford, who served many years on the United Way board of directors, also has many Takeform employees join in the United Way’s Day of Caring.

Editor’s Note: Bill and Roger Hungerford are brothers. Both have distinguished themselves in business and community service.

Discussions delve into injustices and how to be engaged citizens

Four of the panelists during a June 17 session on racial justice included, from left: Rev. James Renfrew, Kim Remley, Kae Wilbert and Bob Golden. Not pictured is another panelist, Sister Dolores Ann O’Dowd.

Bob Golden, a retired probation director at Orleans County, wanted to help the community move past sound bites and dismissive attitudes towards those with differing opinions.

Bob Golden

Golden, 85, has been an engaged citizen all his life, and hasn’t slowed down as a senior citizen. For many years he organized a jazz festival in Orleans County, and has written many letters to the editor over the years. He is chairman of the Holy Family Social Justice Committee in Albion and helped organize several discussions in 2021 at Hoag Library, events put on by the Community Coalition for Justice.

The group led discussions on voting rights and how new laws in several other states will prevent easy access for voters – particularly voters of color, young voters and the elderly and disabled.

Golden and the group looked at “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, a book that argues that the war on drugs has created a new racial caste system in America disproportionately punishing Black people and thus disproportionately denying them voting rights.

A program in October drew a crowd of 75 to hear from RPO musician Herb Smith, who shared about discrimination in music industry, going back centuries.

Another program in September focused on injustices at Native American boarding schools from generations ago.

Twice in June the coalition led book discussions on “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo.

Golden is the driving force behind the coalition, which wants the community to have a deeper understanding of different points of view. Golden is a firm believer that knowledge is power, and better appreciating other people and their backgrounds builds a more compassionate community.

Editor’s Note: Orleans Hub hopes to have an awards presentation in the spring. The past two years the event has been cancelled due to Covid restrictions and concerns. The awards have instead been presented individually.