A Citizen Go-Getter on Civic Participation and Democracy

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We all know people who are hard-core doers, and the next model citizen, Rosemary Ryan, a life-long Highlands, New Jersey resident profiled this month for the Engaging People Series delivers in spades. She's been elected Board of Education President, is an Environmental Commission member, and also sits on the Hope for Highlands Commission, a group of like-minded citizens and business owners who are raising funds to help residents rebuild their lives after Hurricane Sandy. In 2013 Rosemary was encouraged to run for public office, and although she overcomes all obstacles in her way—including a bout with cancer in 2012, politics can sometimes seem like a daunting task.

Rosemary Ryan provides testimony to Senate Hearing Committee on issues the town had after Hurricane Sandy. 

Rosemary Ryan provides testimony to Senate Hearing Committee on issues the town had after Hurricane Sandy. 

It might seem utopian to believe that citizens should be engaged as much as Rosemary, but she teaches us how important it is to work with elected officials to solve community problems. She respectfully speaks her mind and motivates others to do the same. Rosemary said, "I don't think people should complain about government unless they participate in some way. Trying to fix it, doesn't just take the town officials. It takes the town. It takes the people in the town to stand behind the town officials, or let them know what they want." 

I first met Rosemary when I was documenting Jersey shore towns after Hurricane Sandy. Several people around town suggested that I get in touch with her and although it took awhile, we finally connected. Reflecting back on the storm Rosemary explained, "It was like a zombie movie, everyone looked like the walking dead."

Rosemary sits on the Environmental Commission in Highlands which has investigated and reported on an oil seep from an old gas station.

Rosemary sits on the Environmental Commission in Highlands which has investigated and reported on an oil seep from an old gas station.

Even though Rosemary had just finished chemotherapy for a rare form of ovarian cancer, she felt compelled to help when she saw the storm's devastation in her community. With a shaved head she asked the mayor, "How can I help you, I have to help you." Along with her full time job at a law office, as well as her other volunteer positions, she began coordinating donations sent from compassionate people throughout the country. They received so many donations an entire gymnasium was filled at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Highlands that eventually distributed clothing and supplies to nearby towns as well.

Since then, a nonprofit, Hope for Highlands was established to provide material and equipment grants of $1000.00 for homeowners or business owners who were impacted by flooding. According to their website, one-year post Super Storm Sandy, they distributed approximately $154,000.00 to residents and $30,000 to businesses. 

"A lot of people hide behind the fact that they think their voice can't be heard, all you have to do is open your mouth."

Highlands Mayor Frank Nolan reports, "The first wave of governmental funding was paid out to more than 100 residents with an initial $10,000 for staying in their home for 3 years and a house lifting grant of $150,000 per home minus any insurance or FEMA assistance. There are several hundred other home owners who have letters stating they are scheduled to be funded in the second wave of funding starting in January, 2014."

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Rosemary explains, "A year later and we are still in the beginning stages of recovery. There is still so much to be done. I am hopeful that we can get through this and become a stronger community."

With Rosemary on board as a citizen organizer and ally to local elected officials she provides a strong voice and community model to show how her work positively affects democracy. I hope you enjoy her story.