Living The Dream: Susan Sorensen’s Legacy of Heart for Home

Photo/courtesy of Susan Sorensen

“You gotta have heart … all you really need is heart!” ~ You Gotta Have Heart, Damn Yankees, lyrics by Jerry Ross

The signature championing song was belted out loud, clear and with a lot heart in the musical Damn Yankees. Heart is what former nine-year Fair Haven Councilwoman Susan Sorensen says you need at the core of not only your own legacy, but that of your home town. It’s a legacy that she’s forever striving to fulfill, on and off the dais.

Service to community is at the heart of family legacy for Sorensen. And, she said recently, she’s not anywhere near done fulfilling hers and continuing in her family’s without skipping a beat.

After not winning a fourth term in the November election, Sorensen left her seat on the governing body’s dais in the New Year. That’s alright. The time was just about right anyway, said the believer in term limits in a recent chat. Just about, for other reasons. Besides, as she has always known and seen it, there are more ways to fulfill a legacy than in a seat. And those who know Sorensen will likely tell you that she spends little time sitting.

Always up and running to serve, she keeps her finger on the community pulse to keep things that fill her heart going at a healthy pace. A legacy of service is in the extended family heart, she’ll tell you with a prideful smile. And hers is thumping loud and strong.

“Giving back to my community is at the heart of who I am,” she said. “I was raised to give back to my community. Everyone was family. Growing up, I honestly thought that the (community) people around me were real relatives. Everyone was an aunt or an uncle.”

The community of Sorensen’s youth was north of Fair Haven in Nutley, but she was actually born in Sea Bright and spent a lot of time in the area, including lots of volunteering with that family, before moving to the borough where she has now lived since 1998, where she found herself embraced by a new family.

“When I moved to Fair Haven, it became just a continuation of volunteering and any sort of community service I could offer in an area I had, essentially, known and loved all my life,” she said. “Both of my parents had strong ties to the area. I had a lot of family in Sea Bright. My uncle owns Thompson’s Hardware in Shrewsbury. In fact, my grandmother was living here (Sea Bright) when she died.”

Before her governing body stint, Sorensen started in Fair Haven with all sorts of volunteer ventures, such as organizing garden parties for Bicentennial Hall refurbishment funding, planting trees for MLK Day, PTA endeavors, teen canteens, sports, Republican Committee, the Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair candy game of chance, and serving on the board of the nearby Monmouth Day Care Center.

Then, in 2012, she ran for Fair Haven Borough Council. Her three full three-year terms as councilwoman, council president and, as such, liaison to communications, recreation and more, came to and end at the final council meeting of 2020. But there is no end to her work in her now more than 20-year hometown.

The well-known volunteer made it clear that she’s not going anywhere as far as volunteerism and love for her town go, but the time was just about right for her governing body term ending, anyway, she said. “Just about” for these reasons:

“I was done, really, because I am a firm believer in term limits,” she said. “It was time, but I felt I had to run again just because I truly didn’t want to see the facilities projects delayed anymore, as they had been continuously with the introduction of new council members.

“Without council continuity, such projects initiated by one team get disrupted when new members, understandably, need to review all information presented. That has ended up hindering progress. Having to revisit everything constantly and not moving forward has been very frustrating, not to mention expensive.

“With such delays and revisions and revisiting, it becomes a huge disservice to not only residents, but employees working in very sub par facilities. Also, the more we wait, the more it costs us. Each change to plans costs in architectural/design fees.”

There are new plans for the facilities now and a new governing body, to which Sorensen wishes the best of luck. But that story is for another meeting and day.

Sticking to Sorensen’s story and perspective, she said there’s always a healthy bantering of ideas among officials while keeping the residents informed and content with respect to such projects by which they are impacted. It’s what makes serving on a governing body most difficult, she noted. Though, Sorensen said, at the core of serving any community is striking that healthy, often tough, balance.

“The hardest thing about being on council, that residents don’t always understand is that serving means that you, as a resident yourself and an independent thinker, have to separate yourself and your own needs from the borough’s needs,” she said. “As a voting council member, you always first have to ask yourself some critical questions: Does it make financial sense? Can the borough afford it? Is it sustainable for future generations? Is it good for the residents as a whole? Is it good for the entire borough as a whole?”

With the honest answers to those questions, you usually don’t get total consensus among residents. That’s the hardest part of the unpaid job. It’s also why, in order to be effective, elected officials have to separate the personal impact from the town-wide, Sorensen said. The greater good, or what they believe to be the greater good, wins in that debate in the mind of an effective official, Sorensen said. Listening, to all sides, she added, and carefully ingesting valid information, is prudent.

The bittersweetness of it all is that while you are serving the public, you truly can’t please everyone with every decision, Sorensen said. That’s why well-informed decisions are the optimum, she added. The facts come from verified, reliable sources and involvement. That’s why Sorensen involved herself as communications liaison for the borough. Residents called for better communication, she said, and she answered the call. Each council member is liaison to a different department and/or entity in the borough.

Sorensen’s love of involvement and effective communication landed her in that spot as well as recreation. “I believe in being involved,” she said. “In Fair Haven, I have loved being involved prior, during and after (my) council (tenure). It’s also very important for citizens to be informed. If you’re informed, and not subject to rumors, you are better equipped to form valid opinions.”

In that vein, Sorensen pointed to the various committees in the borough, headed by council members and comprised of residents. It’s an aspect of sitting on council of which, she said, many aren’t aware. Such committees work in a purely advisory capacity. They meet, get informed, ingest information and form recommendations based on facts concerning certain matters of interest in the borough.

It’s a measure of due diligence that Sorensen respects tremendously. ” You have to respect the committees who do the due diligence,” she said. “Council should ask questions based on their findings and recommendations, but should take cues or guidance from committee representing. They’re the ones doing the research and presenting it.”

Bringing key matters to the table and people together was one of the best parts of Sorensen’s council job, as she saw it. She initiated Fair Haven Day after residents clamored in 2012 to join in the borough’s centennial celebration and, after a successful day, asked for a similar annual day to celebrate the borough.

They got what they asked for. Fair Haven Day was borne. It has been an annual well-attended event celebrating the 1.6-square-mile borough several years, until this year, when the pandemic made it impossible. Sorensen also started the 501C3 non-profit Foundation of Fair Haven to raise funds for future Fair Haven Days. Out of that Oktoberfest, which has had several incarnations since its onset, was borne to raise money for the annual event at its core — Fair Haven Day.

Calling serving the borough a true, “privilege and honor,” Sorensen also noted that she truly enjoyed every minute of coordinating such borough celebrations as Fair Haven Day and Oktoberfest.

But, while she said that those town celebrations tugged an awful lot on her public service and hometown love strings, she called pushing hard for the hiring of D.J. Breckenridge as the borough’s recreation director her proudest, finest accomplishment.

When the borough lost its recreation director Charlie Hoffman, who Sorensen called a great asset, to Red Bank, the search was on for the best person to fill his shoes. And they were big shoes to fill, she said.

Breckenridge, the son of former Fair Haven Police Chief Darryl Breckenridge, was on the list. Sorensen pushed for him, she said. He ended up winning the appointment. With the announcement of his appointment, Mayor Ben Lucarelli said that officials were a bit worried that people may see his getting the job as a bit of nepotism, even though the chief had retired by then. But, he had concluded, D.J.’s qualifications were stand-out and “just blew us away.”

Sorensen has since worked very closely with D.J. and she said that with all of his ideas, innovations and hard work, “D.J. has been unbelievable.”

What has been believable for Sorensen is that the often difficult, arduous task of being a borough official has also been a true joy — right from the heart.

Oh, she assures, you’ll see her around town, still giving all the heart for home she’s got. But you also may just see for her down by the river at Williams-Robards Park taking a deep breath, a moment or two and exhaling the content sigh of part of a legacy fulfilled in her dais time.

P.S.: If you want to purchase a memorial bench, let her know. That’s all for now. For now.

Thank you for your heartfelt service to the borough of Fair Haven, Susan!

— Slideshow photos of Sorensen/Elaine Van Develde, for R-FH Retro 2014-2020

John Caroli
BCS Wealth Management