caring for her community

by PWN Editors

Mary-Ellen Mess’ life has been dedicated to serving her community—whether it was managing youth programs in Newark for 30 years, being a Red Bank Board of Education member for 13 years, or in her current position as a reference librarian at the Red Bank Public Library. 

The guiding force for Mess has been her appreciation of human beings as a collective. She recognizes that people are complex and that fact has steered how she seeks to understand, interact, and care for her community. 

“I was always very intuitive,” said Mess. “I was always a very good observer of human nature. I had an ability to sense a lot of things that were going on and I also had a lot of compassion for people. It’s being open to learning something. I never went into anything thinking that I knew everything. ”

Mess’ career began after graduating from Rutgers University in 1974, where she majored in botany. After working at an environmental center and a state park, she got a job teaching health education for Planned Parenthood, which took her career trajectory into the fields of social work and health education.

Working for the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ, Mess ran a peer leadership program that morphed into the School-Based Youth Services Program, which provided counseling, employment, health education, and mental health counseling to teenagers in Newark.

During her career, Mess worked to provide several generations of marginalized teenagers with a vast variety of opportunities rarely afforded to them. 

“It’s all about social and emotional development,” said Mess. “How you feel about yourself, what kind of guidance you’re getting not only from home but from school, where you can see yourself as something larger than yourself. So one of my main goals was exposing kids to more than they were exposed to at home.”

One of the programs Mess managed was SAVVY, Students Against Violence and Victimization of Youth, which was so successful in reducing the amount of fighting in school that Governor Christine Todd Whitman visited.

Another program, “One Healthy Choice,” focused on nutrition and wellness with funding from Michelle Obama’s national health initiative. Mess fondly remembers cooking classes for the kids.

“That was really fun because we had kids who said, ‘Oh, I’ve never had a piece of broccoli,’” said Mess. “In a lot of urban areas, people just go to fast food or go to the bodega and pick up something that was packaged. Their access to fresh food was limited and Michelle Obama did a good thing for women, low-income women, low-income communities, by taking that on.”

While Mess worked to give young people access to more opportunities in Newark, she also looked to how she could impact her own community of Red Bank, where she has lived since 1987.

In 1994, in the same month her youngest son was born, she was elected to the Red Bank Board of Education, which she served on for 15 years, with a focus of supporting children who are typically not valued in a traditional school setting.

“I’ve known some very smart kids and they weren’t necessarily well-versed in booksmarts but had a lot of great ability to interpret the world and make decisions that were good for themselves,” she said.

Mess believes there should be more ways to measure a person’s talent or ability. 

“Unfortunately with the emphasis on test scores, there are kids who will never be academically strong,” she said. “It’s not what they’re interested in, it’s not how their brain works, but maybe they have another talent? We need a cultural shift in what we value.”

Mess shared that her grandfather was a house painter who spoke limited English.

“Every Saturday, [he] listened to the opera on the radio,” said Mess. “He had no education, but he could appreciate beautiful music. People bring all kinds of things to the world.”

Mess originally moved to Red Bank because she wanted her children to grow up in a diverse community where they could meet a lot of different people.

“I wanted my children to go to school with African American and Latino children,” she said. “I didn’t want them to grow up in a lily-white community, but I also wanted them to go to good schools. I just felt like the standard should be raised for everyone, not just for certain people’s children.”

At the time, Mess appreciated that Red Bank had small-town charm. She recalls when Red Bank had tiny shops in little alleyways and backways, when rents were low and the town was full of long-time residents. Back then, Red Bank still had Woolworth’s and a Fanny Farmer. She shared the story of how when her mother would come to visit, she was shocked that there were no parking meters.

“There were a lot of nice little things that went on,” Mess said, remembering how at Christmas time at Blaisdell’s hardware store on Bridge Avenue, they’d have a petting zoo for the children. 

“Now it’s all about the money,” she said, “how much money can we make because everything’s so expensive. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this pandemic changes things because there are a lot of people who don’t want to live in high density areas anymore.”

Still, Mess appreciates the cultural opportunities available from the theaters in particular—Count Basie, Two River Theater, and Bow Tie Cinemas—as well as the eclectic range of restaurants. “We’ve got the best Mexican baker,” she said. She also loves Red Bank’s location on the river, stating that both of her sons—one a surfer, the other a sailor—have enjoyed growing up by the water.

“Red Bank has been very good to my family,” said Mess. “I don’t think I’m moving anywhere because when I think of where I want to go, there aren’t too many places I would consider. And I live in an old house that I’ve put a lot of work into. I have a lot of sweat equity in there.” 

When looking back on her choices, Mess reflects that she’s chosen a different path than many of her friends and families.

“I was in school in the ’60s and ’70s at the height of the civil rights movement, and I took a lot of what was going on then to heart,” she said. “I have long-time friends who always tease me that I was always the flower power person.”

Years before her retirement, Mess became uncomfortable anticipating she wouldn’t have anything to do. Inspired by an acquaintance who had gone back to get her degree in library science, Mess went back for a Masters of Library & Information Science at Rutgers University, graduating in 2013.

“Well, I always loved to read, I’m a real bookworm,” said Mess. “My salvation has been reading.”

As a librarian, Mess continues to serve her community. She said that every day is different and that she’s always problem solving, trying to figure out what people need help with. She enjoys being able to put her social work skills to good use, whether she’s helping someone with a detailed job application or giving respect to the homeless who often drift through libraries.

“If you’re not in community with people, if you don’t really get to know people, if you don’t know who they are, what they value, we’re always going to have divisions,” she said. “I don’t know what the answers are but as a librarian I will advise people, ‘Read more! Read! Read! Read! Read!’”

Red Bank, New Jersey