Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saving a Swamp: Changing the Course of a Life

By Karen Dougherty

In reading the chapter “Saving A Swamp and Landmark Campaigns” in the book, A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns by Jan Barry, I am again struck by the notion that if you find a cause that you are passionate about, you may change the course of your life.

The example of Helen Fenske and the Great Swamp campaign is a case in point. In 1960, the marshy area known as the Great Swamp was near enough to Newark Airport that developers thought it the ideal location for a new and improved airport. Area residents knew that the true value of the swamp lie in its dazzling biodiversity and unspoiled landscapes. Passionate community laypeople banded together to convince Congress to protect the wetlands as a national wilderness, thereby protecting its survival.

One of the people involved in this project was Helen Fenske. Helen was an unassuming young housewife and mother who lived adjacent to the swamp and knew that it must be preserved. When the residents formed the Great Swamp Committee she became the organization’s secretary. The group even worked out of Helen’s kitchen due to lack of funds, but this became an important impetus for their mission as the view of the swamp from her windows reminded everyone how much was at stake.

Happily, the group’s success and Helen’s passion for conservation issues led her to co-found the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF). According to their website, over the last fifty years, the NJCF has helped to protect over 120,000 acres of New Jersey land from development. Her experience caught the attention of the Ford Foundation and during her employment there she helped establish the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions. In continuing her rise in the environmental arena, she was appointed as a special assistant to the newly established New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and continued to hold other positions of importance there over the years. After retiring, she continued to be involved as a trustee on the boards of several New Jersey environmental organizations.

Helen Fenske’s passion and determination is a reminder that each of us is capable of making a difference in the world. Confucius understood this 2500 years ago when he said, “Choose a job you love to do and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

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