Couple's social justice advocacy spans a lifetime
Kelly Nicholaides , Staff Writer, @rovingwriter Published 5:00 p.m. ET April 13, 2017 | Updated 21 hours ago
Jim and Bea O'Rourke sort through decades of mementos that chronicle their humanitarian work.(Photo: Jim O'Rourke)
Upon returning from missionary work in Louisiana in 1967, Ridgewood residents Jim and Bea O'Rourke embarked on a lifetime of social justice advocacy to address worker and immigrant rights, poverty and discrimination. Promoting social justice went beyond volunteering. Bea was a social worker, while Jim influenced young minds in the classroom through poetry.
The couple will be honored with the Ridgewood A.M. Rotary Club's 2017 Humanitarian of the Year award on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Stony Hill Inn in Hackensack.
"Jim and Bea have been a recognized force in good government efforts and aid to the poor for decades," said Mary Ann Copp of the Ridgewood A.M. Rotary Club.
Bea and Jim met while they were students at Fordham University. Their love blossomed as the seeds of cultural and political shifts of the 1960s were sown. Jim, now 83, had just returned from two years in the Army during the Korean War in 1955. The couple wed in 1959. Bea, 80, taught special education in New York City's Lower East Side.
"There were lots of immigrants from Cuba and Hong Kong. Poverty was immersed into the area. It was dangerous to walk home from school," Bea said. "You also couldn't drink the tap water ... like today."
They began missionary work through Christian Family Mission Vacations at a French settlement off the bayou, with a population of 500. The residents worked on farms or in refineries. The O'Rourkes set up a recreational group to bring folk dance, art and song, providing an escape from grueling workdays. They connected couples who volunteered to do missionary work with communities in need.
Bea O'Rourke chats with President Jimmy Carter about addressing issues of hunger in the United States. (Photo: Bea O'Rourke)
"A dentist and a nurse couple, for instance, would go where health care resources were lacking. We connected 800 couples with communities in need. When we came back from missionary work, we decided that politics is the only place you can really make a change in America," Bea reflected.
Making it her mission to help struggling families, Bea went back to school to get a degree in social work. She worked at the Center for Food Action from 1992 to 2006. She raised $800,000 for a new center in Mahwah to expand the county's services outside its Englewood headquarters. "We were servicing 1,000 families a month. We realized Ringwood was a mess. The Native American population needed help, so we expanded our resources and got up to 400 volunteers to help," Bea said.
Active politically, Bea served on Jimmy Carter's Presidential Commission on Hunger, and worked as district office manager for Rep. Andrew Maguire.  County Democratic Committee members, the couple have campaigned for Brendan Byrne, Frank Lautenberg, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Loretta Weinberg, among others. "They cared about women, equal opportunity, equal pay and working families," Bea said.
After their son survived a gunshot wound during a robbery, the couple lobbied for gun control.
At a women's march in New York, they met feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and gave author Betty Friedan ("The Feminine Mystique") a ride home. "This was a woman who changed the world, and yet she couldn't find a cab, but the city was packed with feminists and supporters," Bea said.
Gloria Steinem with Bea O'Rourke at a women's march promoting feminism. (Photo: Bea O'Rourke)
Rioting in Newark during the civil rights movement in the 1960s ushered in tanks rumbling through the city. "There were kids throwing flowers at them, calling for peace as Newark was burning," Bea said.
Jim used the words of poets and writers in his Wallington classroom to highlight struggles of the times. From 1984 through 2010, Jim inspired his Wallington students' creativity by encouraging them to reflect on the written word through his Pizza & Poetry Club, which thrived for 20 years. Jim was featured on Channel 13 for his "Poet's Voice" and "Poetry on the Line" at the annual Bergen Community College Teen Arts Festival, drawing 4,000 high school students for dramatic impromptu poetry readings. His NJN interview for "Classroom Close-up," sponsored by NJEA in 2000, highlighted the innovative ways he teaches poetry.
"The key is to learn to use the written word as a vehicle for empowerment, change and a reflection of the human condition, and to use the creative expression inside and outside the classroom," he explained.
The Bergen Community College poetry event, held every May, is like a campus open mic. Students pick poems from clotheslines and perform impromptu dramatic readings. Authors like Kurt Vonnegut wrote of the horrors of war and plight of the working class. New Jersey poets like Steven Dunn, BJ Ward, and William Carlos Williams appealed to students, he said.
"Give them the freedom to make up their minds about what they read. The power of the words appealed to their emotions and inspired them to express themselves and take action when they see injustices," Jim said.
 
 
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