A single, dominant thread runs through the narrative of Eileen Avia's life.
As a volunteer, teacher and a single mother, Avia has combined impassioned dedication and a seemingly bottomless well of earnest energy to help those who often struggle to help themselves.
In a recent interview with the Wyckoff Township Committee candidate, I asked her to tell her story and detail what set her apart from others running for the position and the idea that seemed front and center for Avia, 64, was a commitment to service that began with her children and then extended beyond.
"Most important for me has been working very, very hard as a single parent to set a good example for my two sons of what it takes to be a good citizen, someone who really cares about the welfare of the community, the welfare of the people."
From Ridgewood to Hawaii and Back
Avia, a Dutch-Italian, Ridgewood native, grew up in a house at 157 Doremus Ave. — her father a type-setter in Newark, her mother an employee at Gimbels.
Growing up working class wasn't easy for her and her family, she said in a recent interview with Wyckoff Patch.
"It was a struggle... I can remember when I was in Ridgewood High School all the girls had their nice, starched shirts on — fresh from the cleaner's — and I would be there laboring over the ironing board trying to get mine to look something like theirs'," Avia said.
Avia worked as a waitress and hostess at Servinos in Ridgewood throughout high school and eventually attended the University of Jacksonville. She graduated with a degree in elementary education and a minor in sociology.
Upon her return to New Jersey, Avia initially taught fourth and fifth graders in Franklin Lakes for a half dozen years and, while teaching, earned her master's degree in special education from William Paterson University.
She lived in Ridgewood again briefly before moving to Hawaii for 18 months in the late 70s with her then-husband Ernest Pope and her two young sons.
"I wasn't terribly happy about living there, I was very close with my girlfriends [in New Jersey] and we all had our babies at about the same time."
She and her husband eventually moved back to Ridgewood to a "big, beautiful house on Heights Road."
Avia and Pope divorced around in the early 80s; she and the children left Ridgewood for the Wyckoff home she lives in to this day on Voorhis Avenue."
Her eldest son Jeff Pope, is now 35 and an orthopedic surgeon in Ridgewood; and her younger son, Mark Pope, 34, is the Wall Street Journal's executive director of multimedia sales for Europe, Asia, Africa. Mark lives in London.
Avia said raised them "pretty much alone," but gave thanks to her parents, "aunties" and her neighbors, who all helped out.
When her boys were still young, one neighbor — YMCA Executive Director Joy Vottero — would help out taking the kids to school occasionally, she said.
Avia exhausted herself and worked three jobs: subbing where ever she could find a position, book keeping for a Glen Rock-based stair builder, and she cleaned houses on the side to help make ends meet.
"You do what you have to do to survive," Avia said.
In 1980, she started as an instructional aide at Eisenhower Middle School waiting for a full-time teaching position to open up, eventually transitioning into a full-time position there.
Now, more than 30 years later, Avia said she owes much of her vivaciousness to her career.
"I'm proud of my age... 64 is not old, it's what you make it — you have to stay active you have to stay involved," she said. "I have a high energy level [because] I teach special ed ... I never get to sit down."
From the Classroom to the Committee
When she snagged her job at Eisenhower she didn't slow down, according to Avia, she began volunteering around the township. Throughout the years she's been involved with not-for-profit organizations such as the Wyckoff Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Partners in Pride.
Her job as a teacher has helped her become a more understanding and compassionate individual, she said. And that knowledge is something she said she tries to pass on to her students regularly.
"Getting the children involved, making them aware that there are needy people and they can't only worry about their own needs, is an important lesson in the classroom," she said.
It's a way of life she hopes to carry to the Wyckoff Township Committee should she be elected.
"I see such a lack of volunteerism in Wyckoff... people are just are so busy," she said, pointing to her time as the secretary of Partners in Pride, a non-profit civic organization that helps beautify the township.
"Trying to get people to even help us to water the pots in town has been difficult," Avia said. "We have to strive to get people more involved in volunteering... there are so many worthy causes.
"Because I've been very involved in volunteer organizations in Wyckoff, I'd like to work in a broader sense to meet with more residents and to fulfill more needs in the community," she said.
Avia also noted that everyone benefits when residents are encouraged to be more involved in local government.
"I'd like to see township meetings televised," Avia said. "People need to feel that whatever decisions are made, they have a voice in them and how they impact their lives."
Taxes, Schools and Police
Lowering the tax rate in Wyckoff is also a high priority for this committee candidate: "We've done fairly well, but I think we can do better.
"I worry about my 90-plus [year-old] neighbors... their taxes are $8,000 for their little house. I really worry — [for people on a fixed income] it's a tremendous amount of money."
When asked if she felt the taxpayers over the past several years had gotten their money's worth in municipal budgets, she said the township committee's handling of taxes has been "fair."
"I think they've worked fairly well together," Avia said.
Asked about possible areas where the township could try to cut the tax burden for residents, Avia suggested working more closely with the Wyckoff Public School District to trim fat.
"There are definitely areas where [the schools] can strive to be more fiscally responsible and I think it warrants a real study," Avia said. "For me — paying that $9,300 or so a year — it's not easy."
She was hesitant to detail just how as a committeewoman she would persuade the schools to rein in spending, but said that studies were in order to figure it out.
Avia said shared services should be continue to be broadly considered, both in the school district and on the township level.
She did highlight one worthy expenditure where spending should rise: the Wyckoff Police Department.
"I think if anything, we need more policemen, I'm concerned with the crime rate," Avia said. "We're so accessible to Route 208 and I-287... The current police force has done a wonderful job making this a safe place to live, but they could use more help."
Avia is running for a three-year term on the male-dominated Wyckoff Township Committee. She is running against incumbent Committeeman and former-Mayor Kevin Rooney, and challenger Haakon Jepsen.
"I think it would be beneficial to have a woman and more balance on the committee," Avia said. "I think I'm a very independent thinker with credibility that would serve this town very well."
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