Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. and the Essex County Division of Senior Services hosted the Annual Essex County Older Americans Heritage Month Celebration on Tuesday, May 7th in the Essex County Robert O’Toole Building in Essex County Cedar Grove Park in Cedar Grove. May is recognized as National Older Americans Month.


During the ceremony, DiVincenzo presented Essex County Legends Awards to Stephanie Gerstein from West Orange, Bessie Johnson from Newark, Claire Seidner Scholz from Livingston, Yusuf Statum from Newark and Catherine F. Willis from East Orange.

“Older Americans Month is an opportunity for us to recognize the tremendous contributions our senior citizens have made to shape and mold today’s community and bring attention to the contributions they continue to make on a daily basis to improve our quality of life. Active in all aspects of life, our senior population is proving that you don’t slow down after you reach a certain age,” DiVincenzo said. “Our honorees have exhibited a tremendous amount of responsibility by advocating for and providing assistance that is helping their fellow seniors to remain active and continue living in our community,” he added.

“Our Legends Award recipients demonstrate that you can still contribute and make a difference in your community no matter what your age. All of our seniors are role models for the contributions they have made and continue to make, inspiring our younger generation to get involved and for the assistance they have provided to their fellow seniors,” Essex County Division of Senior Services Director Jaklyn DeVore said.

The award winners were nominated by social service agencies and community organizations that work closely with the Essex Division of Senior Services and were chosen because they are positive role models for the younger generation, have worked tirelessly to assist fellow seniors and made tremendous contributions to improve the quality of life. The honorees are as follows:

Stephanie Gerstein from West Orange is a volunteer with Listen to Children, the Friend Advocate Program, Reading Buddies, Interfaith Hospitality Network and Succeed2gether. The plaque presented to her states: “Stephanie Gerstein makes a positive impact on every person she meets. Much of her volunteer work is focused on children. She instills a love of reading and promotes literacy by reading stories to elementary school students in class, tutors and helps homeless children with their homework and teaches children the card game Bridge, allowing them to develop socialization skills and play games that are not on a computer. Her personal touches – sharing homemade cookies, using humor and truly listening – allows her to connect with the younger generation. Ms. Gerstein also lends a helping hand to seniors, including one woman who she helped organize her bills and regain control of her life after her mother passed away. Ms. Gerstein is a special person whose enthusiasm motivates and inspires others.”

“I am totally humbled at receiving this recognition. I get so much more personally than what I give,” Gerstein said.

Bessie Johnson from Newark is a retired food service worker with Newark Public Schools volunteers at the Essex County Weequahic Park Café in the Park program and knits lap blankets for seniors in nursing facilities. The plaque presented to her states: “Providing delicious and nutritious food has been an ongoing theme in the life of Ms. Johnson. For 28 years, she worked as an employee of the Newark Public Schools Food Service Department serving meals to elementary and high school students. After retiring from a second career in retail, she returned to her love of cooking and baking to feed children at a day care center. She also has utilized her crocheting skills to create hats for infants taking their first breaths in area NICUs and blankets for hospitalized chemotherapy patients and seniors in nursing facilities. She currently can be found back in the kitchen serving lunch to participants in the Essex County Senior Café program in Weequahic Park. We are proud to recognize this “super volunteer” as an Essex County Legend.”

“Thank you for thinking this much of me. I have always enjoyed working with children and seniors,” Johnson said.

Claire Seidner Scholz from Livingston is a retired school psychologist and supervisor with the Irvington Public School District who operates the Kosher Nutrition Lunch Program at the JCC in West Orange and is a member of the Livingston Senior Advisory Committee and AARP Chapter in Livingston. The plaque presented to her states: “As a school psychologist and supervisor in the Irvington Public School District for 28 years, Claire Scholz impacted the lives of generations of students and parents. When New Jersey mandated sex education be included in the curriculum, she took the lead to train other teachers, wrote curriculum guides and became a well-respected authority throughout the state. In retirement, Ms. Scholz is a devoted volunteer at the Margulies Center at the JCC in West Orange, where she has served in various leadership roles and essentially runs the Kosher Nutrition Lunch Program. She further advocates for seniors as a member of the Livingston Senior Advisory Committee and Livingston AARP Chapter. Ms. Scholz’ desire to give back to her community is an inspiration to us all.”

“I worked in Irvington for 28 years and enjoyed every day and I continue to work because I enjoy what I’m doing. This is a tremendous honor and I appreciate it,” Scholz said.

Yusuf Statum from Newark worked 24 years at UMDNJ, helped found and organize the annual Scudder Homes Reunion, and was a founding member and president of the Central Ward Community Group. The plaque presented to him states: “Mr. Statum has always involved himself in helping others and building a stronger community. He assisted older Americans as a senior service worker at UMDNJ for 24 years. After lamenting that the community only came together in times of grief and crisis, he was instrumental in organizing an annual three-day celebration on Howard Street. The event has evolved into the “Scudder Homes Reunion” and continues to strengthen the bonds between neighbors. He also is a founding member and President of the Central Ward Community Group, a grassroots group that has been championing and advocating for the neighborhood for the last two decades. We are proud to honor Mr. Statum as an Essex County Legend for his leadership, activism and concern on behalf of his neighbors.”

“My reward of helping others is to see the smiles on their faces. I appreciate this award greatly, but I would continue to do what I’ve been doing even if I wasn’t being recognized,” Statum said.

Catherine F. Willis from East Orange served as the Director of Planning and Economic Development for East Orange, President of the Essex County Board of Taxation, Director of the Essex County Division of Community Action and held a leadership role with the Girl Scout Council of Greater Essex and Hudson Counties. The plaque presented to her states: “After holding several corporate positions, Catherine Willis found her calling in public service and the non-profit sector. It was through this second career that this social worker at heart was able to fulfill her passion to help others and assist the public to improve their living conditions. Ms. Willis empowered young girls through her work with the Girl Scouts and was a founding member of the first state-funded day care program, which continues to operate today in East Orange. She also impacted the community through the positions she held with the City of East Orange and County of Essex. Among her notable achievements is successfully lobbying several states to enact “motor voter” legislation that enables residents to register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or registration.

“I’m retired, but I don’t know I’m retired because I’m still so active. I’ve always lived my life being ready to help another person,” Willis said.

The Essex County Older Americans Heritage Month Celebration is part of a yearlong series of programs initiated by County Executive DiVincenzo to recognize and celebrate the diversity of Essex County. Other cultural celebrations celebrate African American Heritage, Irish Heritage, Italian Heritage, Jewish Heritage, Latino Heritage, Portuguese Heritage and Women’s History.

The Essex County Division of Senior Services offers a wide range of services to eligible Essex County senior citizens. The Division offers adult protective services, provides basic transportation services, administers adult day care centers, offers counseling services, provides home delivered meals and offers visiting nurse services. For more information, please call the Division of Senior Services at 973-395-8375.


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