Volunteers are the back bone of our communities -- they make Verona and Cedar Grove the wonderful towns that they are. TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove will recognize the volunteers that support and inspire our residents in an ongoing "Volunteer Spotlight" series. If you have a suggestion of a individual or organization that deserves recognition send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
VERONA, NJ - A Verona volunteer has been helping the community for years and has proven her dedication to making her town a better place.
A committed volunteer and a longtime Verona resident, Mary Cooksey Wilks dedicates much of her time to the town that she loves. Although Cooksey Wilks was born in Rockville Centre, New York and lived there until she was 3, she has called Verona home for 66 years and loves the small town feel of the township.
“While Verona has changed and grown over the years, and neighborhoods change, we still keep that small town feel,” Cooksey Wilks said. “The store owners know you by name. You walk down Bloomfield Avenue and see the beautiful flowers in the hanging baskets that seem to say ‘welcome.’”
It is the community events and friendships Cooksey Wilks has made over the years that makes Verona home for her.
“Almost every day you run into an old friend or someone you know and stop for a quick conversation. We have fantastic community events like Fair in the Square with our annual Christmas tree lighting, outdoor summer concerts and a variety of activities in beautiful Verona Park,” Cooksey Wilks added. “I've met and become friends with so many wonderful people over the years. I cannot even imagine living anywhere else. This is definitely my home.”
It is those aspects of Verona that has made volunteering and working in the community something Cooksey Wilks loves. Besides working in banks for 20 years and as a dental receptionist for 22 years, Cooksey Wilks took a job as an “interim” school crossing guard at the corner of Forest Avenue and Gerdes Avenue in 1985 and can still be found at that same corner.
In addition to working in Verona as a crossing guard, Cooksey Wilks spends much of her time volunteering for various committees, something she began doing after she helped coach the recreation department’s girls softball teams. It was also a loss for a town council seat that helped her get involved.
“The majority started after I ran for town council back in 1986. Verona was changing their form of government and eight people ran for five seats,” Cooksey Wilks said. “I came in last but was appointed to the Recreation Advisory Committee and it all snowballed after that.”
Cooksey Wilks still serves as a chairperson on the Recreation Advisory Committee, as well as a chairperson on the Public Safety Advisory Committee. Both committees help to improve the community by discussing current programs and safety initiatives and by bringing in suggestions and ideas from the public.
Cooksey Wilks is also a member of the Verona High School Alumni Association (VHSAA) and currently serves on their executive board.
“Most of my volunteer activity has been for the town. Over the years I've been involved in a variety of committees and projects, including the planning of the Community Center, development of the Hilltop and fields, and was a member of the Verona Centennial Commission that planned our 100th Celebration,” Cooksey Wilks said. “I also served a couple of terms on the Budget Review Committee.”
Her involvement in the 9/11 Committee is what has influenced her life the most, Cooksey Wilks said.
“This committee encompasses what Verona is all about,” she added. “We were a group of complete strangers, from all walks of life, with a lot of varying opinions, that came together and worked together for one common goal -- to make sure ‘We Would Never Forget.’”
The committee sent out mailings and held fundraisers, and through the generosity of the community, they were able to achieve their goals and create scholarships in the names of the Verona residents who were killed in the World Trade Center attack. The William J. Erwin and Stephen L. Roach scholarships are given out each year to graduating Verona High School students based on essays submitted about 9/11. The memorial created by the committee stands in Verona’s Civic Center.
The committee also holds a remembrance service every year on September 11 so the community can come together in honor of those lost and honor the efforts of the first responders.
“For the past three years we have set up 2,977 flags in the Civic Center, one for each person who was killed on September 11,” Cooksey Wilks said. “It's a sobering visual.”
With so much volunteering under her belt, Cooksey Wilks is recognized as a devoted resident in the Verona community, former Councilman and Mayor Bob Manley said.
“She just stays involved with everything,” Manley said. “She’s heavily involved. She’s an incredibly dedicated and devoted person to Verona.”
As someone who grew up in neighboring Montclair, Manley said he likes the small town feel of Verona and the tight-knit community.
“We have a community that helps each other,” he added. “This is a warm and welcoming and supportive community, as evidenced by the volunteerism.”
Cooksey Wilks devotes a lot of her time to giving back to the community, but when she’s not volunteering, Cooksey Wilks enjoys going for walks and researching her ancestry.
“It's very time consuming, but I enjoy the searching, and when you get a ‘hit’ it's like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's also very frustrating when you hit a wall and cannot locate an ancestor that stalls your progress,” she said. “My advice to everyone -- talk to your parents and grandparents about family because if you ever decide to do your family tree the information they pass along will be invaluable.”
When it comes to volunteering, both Manley and Cooksey Wilks encourage everyone to find a way to help the community.
There are so many people with great expertise, knowledge, talent and creativity,” Manley said. “If we could tap into that it would be phenomenal, and I think we do."
Both Verona residents also acknowledged the incredible efforts of both the volunteer rescue squad and fire department in town.
“Just stop and think for a minute about the many volunteer organizations in Verona and how much they do for our town and schools,” Cooksey Wilks said. “And don't forget about the ultimate volunteers -- members of our Rescue Squad and Fire Department. Where would we be without them? Volunteering is about giving back, getting to know the people in your community, and making new friends. What have you got to lose? Give it a try.”