WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual breakfast at the Wilshire Grand Hotel on Jan. 31, celebrating local businesses and Mayor Robert Parisi’s State of the Township Address. Parisi also presented the Employee of the Year Award to police dispatcher Chris Babinski and Citizen of the Year Award to the West Orange Police Athletic League.
Parisi began his speech by remembering former New Jersey governor and West Orange native Brendan Byrne, mentioning how much he and Byrne had in common.
“He was a Tory Corner kid like myself and a Washington School student like myself,” Parisi said at the event. “He was always proud to say where he was from and did his best to serve the state. Well done, governor.”
The mayor also spent part of his speech noting the 2017 accomplishments of many West Orange High School students and teams, acknowledging senior soccer player Maurice Williams, the boys’ Essex County Player of the Year; sophomore soccer player Natalie Nevins, the girls’ Essex County Player of the Year; and junior girls’ basketball player Mya Bembry, who scored her 1,000th career point in a game the night before.
According to Parisi, the Mountaineer girls’ soccer team was named Essex County Team of the Year; the cheerleading team will once again head to the national championships; and the marching band has won state and national awards. The top academic students from WOHS were also recognized by the mayor, including Aishwarya Kanagala and Aion Ashby, the Class of 2018 valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively.
“They have provided a small glimpse of what lies ahead and of the very bright future,” Parisi said. “To the Board of Education and the administration and teachers who spend every day with our children, we thank you.”
Parisi also recognized longtime BOE member Laura Lab, who recently completed her tenure on the board, as well as her replacement, Ken Alper.
“She went from being a parent advocate to a 10-year member of the board,” Parisi said of Lab. “From those who have been affected by her and those who have yet to step into the school system, we thank you. With Ken, we are in good hands and I look forward to seeing what the year brings.”
The work of the township employees and volunteers was also highlighted by Parisi, who spoke about the 16 miles of roads paved in West Orange in 2017, and the approval of a traffic light that will soon be installed at Alisa Drive. The West Orange Police Department’s Take Me Home program, which registers residents who are at risk of wandering away and helps officers to bring them home, was highlighted along with the first gay pride march and Hispanic heritage flag-raising event in September.
The Employee of the Year Award went to police dispatcher Chris Babinski, who has held the position within the department since 1989.
“He is personable, he is caring and he is committed,” Parisi said about Babinski in presenting the award. “Even when we are not in a crisis, he keeps us informed about the police department. Most residents have never met him, but will never forget his voice.”
He added that he and Babinski met as students at Edison Middle School, and remain friends and neighbors. Babinski briefly thanked the mayor and West Orange residents for the award, but gave the most thanks to the police department itself.
“I wouldn’t be able to get this award without the work of the police department, so for that I thank you,” he said.
The Citizen of Year Award went to a group rather than one person this year. The West Orange Police Athletic League was celebrated as one of the longest running organizations in town, and for the work it does for the children taking part in its football, baseball and cheerleading teams.
“What began all those years ago has grown, thanks to Vinnie Albanese,” Parisi said, acknowledging the late longtime PAL director in his speech. “He set an example of volunteerism that survives to this day. Many of the volunteers in the league haven’t had kids play in years and they keep coming back.”
Joe DePasquale, the current PAL director, accepted the award on the behalf of the organization’s board and volunteers.
“He was tough at times,” DePasquale joked about Albanese. “But he was always for the kids. We are here for the youth of West Orange, so thank you.”
Another West Orange was also acknowledged in Parisi’s speech — West Orange, Texas. After Hurricane Harvey swept through the small Houston suburb last summer, Parisi spoke with its mayor, Roy McDonald, and set up a fundraiser to help the town of 3,443 get back on its feet.
“It’s different from the West Orange we know, but that did not stop residents from helping,” Parisi said. “Though the thousands raised were not enough to rebuild completely, it helped to rebuild their damaged spirit — an important first step to rebuilding lives. Well done, West Orange.”
Parisi also briefly mentioned local redevelopment projects currently in the works, including the Edison Village project on Main Street, and the resolution recently passed by the council to come up with a redevelopment plan for the Essex Green and Executive Drive property near the center of town.
“These projects provide a unique opportunity to change the town,” Parisi said. “It allows us to replenish hundreds of millions of dollars for the town, and that can never be a bad thing.”
Looking ahead to the rest of 2018, Parisi said that he is eagerly awaiting the results of the town’s senior citizen survey and looks forward to the 10th annual Relay for Life as well as renovations that will be made to the township’s pool.
“Most of what we do may not always be exciting,” Parisi said, closing his address. “The best we can do is provide that opportunity to residents. Life is good — it may not always be perfect, but it’s pretty good. We have people standing by to save us and highways that take us to the rest of the world. We do not always agree — we’d be wrong if we did. But despite the hate and the fear in the world, we are united by geography. I believe in tomorrow, and I believe in you. Together we celebrate the idea that we belong here and our West Orange pride.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic