Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center dedication brings laughter and tears

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The new Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center was dedicated Oct. 9, on what would have been the beloved educator’s 61st birthday, amid smiles, tears and — as Maddalena would have wanted it — much laughter. The center is located at the Life Christian Church, 747 Northfield Ave. in West Orange.

In attendance at the dedication were members of Betty’s family, including her brother, Louis J. Maddalena and his wife Joan, along with nephews Louis T., with wife Marissa, and Matthew. Her parents, Louis and Elizabeth Maddalena, were unable to attend. Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky, Board of Education members, Township Council members and other elected officials, district educators current and retired, and many loving friends were also present to celebrate and honor the spirit of a woman who loved helping others.

Assemblyman John McKeon served as master of ceremonies for the dedication. Referencing his favorite film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” McKeon welcomed attendees noting, “This is Betty Maddalena’s opus. I know she is here with us in spirit tonight.”

The West Orange School District named their new pre-school after Betty Maddalena, a special needs teacher and educator for 33 years, who taught in West Orange for 26 years before her death in 2011. Maddalena’s love for her students was special and garnered her the first New Jersey’s Educator Medal of Honor Award in 2006, presented by Gov. Jon Corzine.

“Betty strived to make every student better and she wanted to make sure students had the life and social skills they needed, and in 2012, when we developed that program at the high school, we named it the Betty Maddalena Life Skills Center,” Board of Education President Sandra Mordecai said, adding that the center opened, which provides skill training to special needs students ages 18 to 21, opened thanks to the efforts of district parents and staff, who raised $30,000 in funds. “We thank Betty’s parents, family and friends for loaning her to us for a little bit.”.

Principal Joanne Pollara of Kelly Elementary School remembered Betty as a servant-leader.

“To be successful, there are four pillars on which you can build: dedication, devotion, discipline and determination. Betty Maddalena’s 33 years in education embodied each of these qualities,” Pollara said. “Betty gave the world the best she had every day of her life. For almost 25 years, Betty Maddalena was my colleague and my partner in learning. She was an enthusiastic encourager who cheered for me when I was appointed principal of what is now Kelly Elementary School and when I began my doctoral studies. The greatest gift that Betty gave to me was the honor and blessing to call her my friend.”

Retired teacher Patti VanCauwenberge, one of the founders of the Betty Maddalena Foundation, felt the same way.

“I am so honored to speak tonight about a woman who meant the world to me, my best friend, Betty,” VanCauwenberge said. “As you’ve heard tonight, Betty’s passion was education, especially for her special needs students.

“I describe Bet as someone you could have met for three seconds, and you felt like you were her best friend. She made everyone feel so special and important,” VanCauwenberge continued. “Betty had another passion, and that was having a good time. She would light up a room as soon as she entered it with her amazing smile and sense of humor.”

VanCauwenberge then presented the Betty Maddalena Foundation’s gift to the newly-dedicated pre-school: a framed mission statement once hand-written by Maddalena herself.

“Betty will always be remembered by her friends and colleagues in the West Orange School District (as) walking down the hallways with a smile on her face, a pencil behind her ear and a BlackBerry in her pocket,” BOE member Laura Lab, who made the recommendation to the board to name the pre-school after Maddalena, said. “Betty walked the walk and truly cared about her students, and she was an advocate through and through.”

“I would not be here today without Betty Maddalena, and I am just one life deeply impacted by her,” Maddalena ELC Principal Connie Salimbeno said. “I am profoundly grateful for Betty’s friendship and guidance and to the West Orange Board of Education and Superintendent Rutzky for giving me the opportunity to lead this amazing site and work with such a dedicated group of educators on a daily basis. It is a deep honor to be principal of the Betty Maddalena Early Learning Center and I hope to continue her advocacy.”

Photos Courtesy of WOSD