By Jillian Risberg
There’s nothing better than giving back, lending a helping hand, building a supportive network.
Heidi Caruso knows just how rewarding it is to make a positive impact on someone’s day and a lasting difference in her community.
“I’ve always been involved in volunteering and I took a break for a lot of years after having kids, working full-time, a lot of stuff in my life kind of got in the way of me doing what I really wanted to do,” she says.
Then came Kiwanis because Caruso says it was a good time to do something different.
So she reached out to some connections in Mount Olive, including Colleen Labow and Greg Stewart. Both pointed her in the direction of the global volunteer organization.
“I found out when their meetings were and I just showed up — I was really hooked immediately,” Caruso says. “I’ve always tried to find ways to help children because I’m a teacher (special ed language arts at Sussex Avenue School) and I like to get kids learning how to volunteer, mentoring kids to do community action.”
Kiwanis is designed to be just that so it was an excellent fit for the new Mount Olive president.
“It absolutely drives me everyday because it is the core of who I am. It’s the core of everything I do. Being involved in the community where I live, volunteering, getting more people interested in helping others but most importantly — making connections is so critically important,” says Caruso.
And when the Kiwanis president was a transitional coordinator at Morristown High School she was able to engage the school’s Key Club members.
“I’ve always been able to work with students and get them involved in their community,” she says. “Also, I’m a volunteer coordinator for Wise Animal Rescue. I’m able to have the Key Clubbers I’ve worked with in Morristown or Mount Olive do community outreach and fundraising support for rescues, as well. So everything that I do I’m able to connect all the different layers of who I work with together.”
The Kiwanis president is all about making those connections in Mount Olive township.
“Increasing our volunteers, increasing our membership and ultimately increasing our fundraising,” says Caruso.
She says even if she’s not the benefactor of making a connection, it means everything if she can connect another person or business.
“It’s an opportunity to change the energy of what’s going on in the world right now and just focus on being positive and helpful and do it such a way that our kids are benefitting from it, that our whole community is benefitting,” Caruso says.
Since 1995, the Kiwanis Club of Mt. Olive has been responding to community needs through charitable contributions and donations of time and effort. It empowers members to pursue projects that fill those needs.
They are big supporters of the Mount Olive Food Pantry and also sponsor the Mount Olive High School Key Club through Kiwanis International.
“Then we have a liaison from the Mount Olive Key Club that comes to our meetings and we communicate with them about activities that they want to do,” the Kiwanis Club president says.
According to Caruso, sometimes the Key Clubbers will ask for advice on how to run fundraisers —Kiwanis supports them by being there and advertising for them. And the key club does activities with Kiwanis too.
“Each year they’ve been able to have volunteers from the high school staff our Santa house,” she says. “Obviously now everything is different with COVID so we’re looking for different ways to provide them volunteer opportunities and for us to increase our fundraising so we can give seniors scholarships at the end of their school year.”
Mary Fahy, the newly elected Mount Olive Kiwanis secretary joined the club because she wanted to be part of a local organization that helps make a difference in the community.
“Kiwanis does that by teaching children the value of service to others and leadership skills through their clubs: K-kids for elementary school kids, Builders Clubs for middle school students, Key Clubs for high school students, Circle K Clubs for College students and Aktion Clubs for people with disabilities,” Fahy says.
The Kiwanis secretary hopes that in the coming year they are able to expand their horizons as a club and tackle new projects that help support the community.
According to Caruso, she hasn’t personally plugged anything yet. She wanted Rich Moore (Immediate Past President) to be able to pass the baton.
“I’m not one of those people who enjoys being in the limelight,” she says. “But I also do believe that making connections and using the relationships that we have in our own communities is important and I have a lot.”
Caruso says the reaction to her appointment has been super supportive. She took the reins on October 1.
“I think they’re excited for new leadership and continuing the history that Mount Olive Kiwanis Club has but also moving forward in this time of a lot of challenges,” she says. “All of our fundraisers have been shut down because we literally just can’t do them. So now I get to come in with some new ideas and creativity.
“Rich was essentially a one-man show for a lot of years and kept Kiwanis going. I think his leadership and dedication is something that should be celebrated too, so I wanted him to be able to have that.”
Moore says he is thankful he found someone who has the capability to do his job.
“I’m sure she is fully capable of running the Kiwanis of Mount Olive,” says the Immediate Past President. “However, I am also prepared to back her up and make the transition seamless.”
Caruso’s goal is to partner with and draw attention to their local businesses, where they can hold Kiwanis meetings and events and bring in people interested in learning.
What Mount Olive means to Caruso in the 19 years she has lived there is a place full of hardworking people and nature.
“The color green just shines. We have such a gorgeous, rich community filled with business opportunities, outdoor living (farms, breweries), neighborhoods and being a part of each other’s lives,” says the Kiwanis president. “Those times that people reach out for help and no matter what someone’s belief system is, people jump in and help. That to me is the heart of what this community is.”
They will soon be working with an environmental organization (Green Initiatives Outreach) that asked Kiwanis to find students from the high school to volunteer planting chestnut trees along the South Branch of the Raritan River.
“Having opportunities like that and researching and calling places; we have to work harder and work smarter,” Caruso says. “But things are not impossible and I really believe that.”
What is the Kiwanis Club president looking forward to the most in her new position?
“Being able to pull all that off (everything I just said to you),” she says. “I really want to be able to increase community involvement, get people more engaged and do the fundraising that we need to provide the scholarships for our Key Clubbers.”
At the end of the day, she would just like people to check them out.
“Come with your ideas, bring them to the table,” says Caruso. “Call me — I provide my information everywhere. If anybody’s wondering what Kiwanis is about or want to take a risk and get involved, come to our meeting. And if you don’t want to come to a meeting, I will figure out a way to make sure it happens virtually.”