Standing at the intersection of Main Street and Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead, you’re a short walk from no fewer than three of Susan Wilk’s projects.
Scan the community garden near Grangebel Park for smiling children and fresh crops; take a walk under the new archway near the Suffolk Theater; or stop in at the renovated Riverhead Supermarket and Deli to admire the remodeled design and pick up some produce. Farther away, take a walk on a one-mile walking and jogging path in Stotzky Park or use any of a number of bike racks across town.
Ms. Wilk had a hand in all of those projects, either as a member of Riverhead’s alternative transportation committee or during her time as project coordinator for Creating Healthy Places, a grant program awarded through the Cornell Cooperative Extension.
But despite her recent retirement from CCE, one thing is certain: The benefits of Ms. Wilk’s work will continue to be felt well into the future. And for all of her contributions to the area, Ms. Wilk has been named the Riverhead News-Review Public Servant of the Year.
“She’s definitely left her fingerprints all over Riverhead, and I think she’s contributed to health and welfare in a very important way,” said Amy Davidson, a co-founder of the River and Roots Community Garden. “I don’t think a lot of these things would have happened without her strong personality coming through and making them happen.”
For almost two decades, Ms. WIlk has helped encourage and enable healthier lifestyles for residents of Riverhead and Suffolk County at large. She worked with diabetes outreach for more than 10 years before taking over as project coordinator for the Creating Healthy Places grant.
She retired from CCE this fall, though she remains on the town’s alternative transportation committee.
Ms. Wilk’s résumé runs long, and her projects have incorporated a variety of approaches to encourage healthy lifestyles. She has helped diabetes patients learn healthier habits to manage their conditions, donated bicycles to schoolchildren and promoted cleaner eating in grocery stores and restaurants.
Lengthy, too, is the list of compliments various colleagues heap on her. Deputy town supervisor Jill Lewis: “She was a magician.” ATC member Joe Maiorana: “She was always the calm voice of reason who found some light at the end of the tunnel.” George Bartunek, another ATC member: “The most accomplished person I’ve met in the last four years.”
“Just about everything that the alternative transportation committee has accomplished in the last four years has really been through Susan,” Mr. Bartunek said.
Tim Jahn, a longtime CCE colleague who worked with Ms. Wilk on Creating Healthy Places, said her dedication and demeanor were always impressive.
One of her greatest accomplishments, he said, was getting the community involved through matching local funds and volunteer time for Creating Healthy Places efforts. In doing so, she made every project “fivefold” the scope of what could have been done with CCE money alone.
“She’s tireless, she’s a gracious person and she was likable, so people wanted to work with her,” Mr. Jahn said. “She was dedicated, so people also became dedicated. And she wasn’t discouraged by something taking a little longer than it should have.”
One of her more visible projects through CCE was the community garden, which opened in front of Grangebel Park in 2011. Ms. Wilk allocated about $20,000 in grant money toward the garden for five years of operation. Now that the funding has expired, organizers Laurie Nigro and Ms. Davidson plan to keep the garden running with support from the community.
The two worked with Ms. Wilk to secure the grant and they see the now-retired project coordinator — known as an avid gardener herself — as instrumental in their success.
“Susan has given everything to this project,” Ms. Nigro said. “It has meant so much to her and it never seemed like it was just a job or a requirement. She truly enjoyed every aspect of working with us and working with all the gardens.”
And, Ms. Nigro added, Ms. Wilk’s legacy will be visible regardless of her retirement.
“The stuff that she did is lasting,” she said. “Everywhere you look downtown, from one end to another, she’s made a mark.”
2014: Carl James
2013: Dennis Cavanagh
2012: Ed Romaine
2011: George Woodson
2010: Robert Brown
2009: Barbara Grattan
2008: Liz Stokes
2007: Michael Reichel
2006: Gary Pendzick
2005: The Riverhead Ambulance Corps
2004: Richard Wines
2003: Ken Testa
2002: “KeySpan Coalition”
2001: Ed Densieski
2000: Judge Richard Ehlers
1999: Barbara Blass
1998: Vicki Staciwo
1997: Lenard Makowski
1996: Buildings & Grounds
1995: Jack Hansen
1994: Jim Stark
1993: Rick Hanley
1992: Lawyer Jackson
1991: Andrea Lohneiss
1990: Monique Gablenz
1989: George Bartunek
1998: Patricia Tormey