CEDAR GROVE, NJ — Stephanie Gerstein of West Orange was recently one of five senior citizens honored with an "Essex County Legends Award" at the county's annual Older Americans Heritage Month Celebration held at the Robert O'Toole Building in Cedar Grove Park.

During the ceremony, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr. and the Essex County Division of Senior Services presented Essex County Legends Awards to Gerstein and four other honorees who 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,” according to DiVincenzo.

"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,” said DiVincenzo. “Active in all aspects of life, our senior population is proving that you don't slow down after you reach a certain age.”

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Gerstein is a volunteer with Listen to Children, the Friend Advocate Program, Reading Buddies, Interfaith Hospitality Network and Succeed2gether. The plaque presented to her states that much of her volunteer work is focused on children and that she “makes a positive impact on every person she meets.”

“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,” the plaque reads. “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." 

The plaque concludes that Gerstein is "a special person whose enthusiasm motivates and inspires others."

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

Honored alongside Gerstein were Claire Seidner Scholz of Livingston, Bessie Johnson of Newark, Yusuf Statum of Newark and Catherine Willis of East Orange.  

According to Essex County Division of Senior Services Director Jaklyn DeVore, this year’s 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," said DeVore.

According to the Division of Senior Services, the winners were nominated by social service agencies and community organizations that work closely with the organization. They 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.”

This annual celebration is held during  National Older Americans Month as part of a yearlong series of programs that DiVincenzo initiated in order to recognize and celebrate the diversity of Essex County.

More about the other local honorees can be seen below:

Claire Seidner Scholz of Livingston.

Scholz is a retired school psychologist and supervisor with the Irvington Public School District who currently operates the Kosher Nutrition Lunch Program at the JCC in West Orange. She is also a member of the Livingston Senior Advisory Committee and AARP Chapter in Livingston.

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

The plaque presented to her states that Scholz impacted the lives of generations of students and parents as a school psychologist and supervisor in the Irvington Public School District for 28 years. It also notes that when New Jersey mandated sex education be included in the curriculum, Scholz 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,” the plaque reads. “She further advocates for seniors as a member of the Livingston Senior Advisory Committee and Livingston AARP Chapter. Ms. Scholz's desire to give back to her community is an inspiration to us all."

Bessie Johnson of Newark.

Johnson is a retired food service worker with Newark Public Schools and also volunteers at the Essex County Weequahic Park Café in the Park program in addition to knitting lap blankets for seniors in nursing facilities.

The plaque presented to her describes Johnson as a “super volunteer” and states that providing “delicious and nutritious food” has been an ongoing theme in Johnson’s life.

“For 28 years, she worked as an employee of the Newark Public Schools Food Service Department serving meals to elementary and high school students,” the plaque reads. “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.”

Johnson can currently can be found serving lunch to participants in the Essex County Senior Café program in Weequahic Park.

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

Yusuf Statum of Newark.

Statum has worked for 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 that Statum has always involved himself in helping others and building a stronger community.

“After lamenting that the community only came together in times of grief and crisis, [Statum] was instrumental in organizing an annual three-day celebration on Howard Street,” the plaque reads. “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.”

Statum was selected 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,” said Statum. “I appreciate this award greatly, but I would continue to do what I've been doing even if I wasn't being recognized.”

Catherine Willis of East Orange.

Willis 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 that after holding several corporate positions, 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,” the plaque reads. “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.”

The plaque also states that among Willis’ 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,” she said. “I've always lived my life being ready to help another person.”

The Essex County Division of Senior Services offers a wide range of services to eligible Essex County senior citizens, including: adult protective services, basic transportation services, adult day care centers, counseling services, home-delivered meals and nurse visits.

For more information, contact the Division of Senior Services at 973-395-8375.

Full photo caption:

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr. (center) recognizes Essex County Older American Legends (in front from left) Yusuf Statum from Newark, Bessie Johnson from Newark, Claire Seidner Scholz from Livingston, Catherine Willis from East Orange and Stephanie Gerstein from West Orange.

In back are (from left) Deputy Parks Director Kate Hartwyk, luncheon participant Reza Kowivand, Risk Manager Tim Walker, Senior Services Director Jaki DeVore and Health and Rehabilitation Director Frank DelGaudio.