2022 Community Leader of the Year: Rena Wilhelm

I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down.

Sing along, if you must, to the ’90s earworm that pops into Mindy Ryan’s head when she thinks about Rena Wilhelm, owner of the Weathered Barn boutique on Front Street in Greenport.

“Rena is a powerhouse,” Ms. Ryan said, reflecting on advancements made at the Greenport skate park on Moore’s Lane this past year, due largely to Ms. Wilhelm’s leadership. “Nothing deters her.”

Despite having no background in skateboarding or children of her own, Ms. Wilhelm has made it her mission to save the aging park. Her tenacity, can-do spirit and contribution of blood, sweat and tears (literally) have earned her designation as The Suffolk Times’ 2022 Community Leader of the Year.

Her call to action came in the form of a social media post made in a Facebook group for village residents more than three years ago.

“When I was younger, I used to go there a lot with my friends,” recalled Dane Jensen, who is now 14. He was about 11 when he urged his mom, Diana, to take photos of the decrepit facility and post them online to spread awareness. “It was really upsetting, the condition of it,” Dane said. “People were vandalizing it and it was just falling apart.”

Built in 1998, the municipal skate park has deteriorated as wood rotted away, nails came loose, concrete crumbled and graffiti and litter worsened.

“Rena came in and was able to get the word out, bring the community together and help us start fixing it up,” Dane said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Ms. Wilhelm helped organize a meeting in the village where parents, youth and other community members began to discuss the issues plaguing the park and work toward solutions.

While the pandemic slowed plans for fundraising and events during 2020, Ms. Wilhelm continued working behind the scenes to form Greenport Skate Park Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to returning the park to peak condition. 

During regular work sessions at the park, dedicated volunteers began improvements, replacing old, rotting plywood, reinforcing supports, trading rusted nails for galvanized screws and cleaning up the site to make it safe for kids to use.

“Once COVID hit, we knew we weren’t going to be able to have events, so we said, ‘We’ve got hammers, we’ve got screws, we can find wood, let’s do something,’ ” recalled Colette Galvez, who with her husband, Dan, has volunteered countless hours toward rebuilding the park.

Ms. Galvez, a part-time East Marion resident, can remember bringing her son to the skate park all the way from Selden as he explored BMX and skateboarding in the mid-2000s, before they owned a home on the North Fork.

Rehabilitation work continued into 2022, and Ms. Wilhelm partnered frequently with the roller rink at the Greenport American Legion, which Ms. Ryan manages, for fundraising events.

In May, the organization put on a fashion and art show dubbed “Decked Out,” which featured an auction of skate decks designed by artists and raised nearly $30,000 for the cause.

A skateboarder goes airborne at the 2022 Sound & Skate festival in Greenport. (Credit: Jeremy Garretson)

One deck, created by Ms. Wilhelm, who herself is a talented artist, was made especially for Dane and now hangs in his bedroom. It features the silhouette of Long Island with a marker denoting the location of the skate park.

Ms. Ryan, who received The Suffolk Times’ Community Leader honor in 2017, said Ms. Wilhelm is a hands-on leader. “From never-ending social media marketing to hauling around a 14-foot step ladder to hang murals, she jumps in and does it all,” she said.

In August, the group held the Sound & Skate Festival at the park, a massive undertaking that featured high-flying demonstrations from performers on roller skates, skateboards, scooters and BMX bikes, plus live music, vendors and nearly two dozen Long Island- and New York City-based graffiti artists who created pieces that were auctioned at a separate event in October.

Greenport mayor George Hubbard Jr. said he was impressed with what the artists created out of blank plywood boards and acknowledged that there has been some contention over ongoing graffiti at the park and enforcing the rules. “It was amazing what they did,” he said, “really showing people’s talent in a positive way and not in a destructive way.”

The mayor said the improvements at the park benefit the entire community. “They’re doing very positive work and I commend all of them for dedicating the time,” he said.

Ms. Jensen said it means the world that Ms. Wilhelm jumped in to help. She recalled that her son and his friends would skate at the parks from morning till night, especially during summers off from school.

“They would be there for hours on end and with the damage, it was a little nerve-wracking,” she said.

The park’s deterioration, Ms. Jensen said, has deterred some from using it, but she applauded the restoration projects.. “[Ms. Wilhelm’s] wheels are always turning,” she said. “This has really brought it to the forefront again, that it can be a great place for kids to go, be active and stay out of trouble.”

The work is ongoing as Ms. Wilhelm continues advocating for the park. She plans to seek grant funding through The Skatepark Project — formerly the Tony Hawk Foundation — and, in November, hosted Tito Porrata, a famed skatepark designer from Pivot Custom Skateparks, for a community meeting and brainstorming session at the roller rink.

Mr. Porrata, who has been skateboarding since 1986, recently helped revamp the Montauk Skatepark with a new design and was instrumental in developing the original Greenport skate park more than 20 years ago.

Dane said kids have come from well beyond Greenport to get involved and help with repairs. “Rena stepped up to get it started,” he said. “I look up to her and appreciate her a lot. She showed a lot of us how to work with the community.”

Previous Winners

*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year
2021: Rev. Natalie Wimberly
2020: Kenny Black
2019—Cathy Demeroto
2018—Rev. Dr. Ann Van Cleef
2017 — Mindy Ryan
2016 — Valerie Shelby and Sonia Spar
2015 — Don Fisher
2014 — Designer show house organizers
2013 — Ron and Doris McGreevy
2012 — Group for the East End
2011 — American Legion Post restoration volunteers
2010 — Peggy Murphy
2009 — North Fork Community Theater
2008 — Lori Luscher
2007 — Committee for Phil McKnight
2006 — Relay for Life organizers
2005 — Merle Levine
2004 — Christine Roache
2003 — Barbara Taylor
2002 — Kim Tetrault
2001 — Elinor May
2000 — Mark Miller
1999 — George Hubbard Sr.
1998 —Ed Siegmann
1997 — Freddie Wachsberger
1996 — Shelley Scoggin
1995 — Craig Richter
1994 — Stewardship Task Force
1993 — Walt Krupski
1992 — The Eklunds
1991 — Bill Grigonis
1990 — Merlon Wiggin
1989 — Jeanne Marriner
1988 — Ray Nine
1987 — Bessie Swann