By RICHARD VIRGILIO
Asbury Park resident Sonja O’Brien has spent a lifetime unconditionally giving back. She’s a doer and a giver.
After 14 years of tangible local impact – much of it behind the scenes – the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce is recognizing O’Brien with the 2016 Carousel Humanitarian Award. The award is one of five given annually and celebrates “outstanding dedication” to Asbury Park.
“Sonja is great at bringing people together and beyond that, she does it all with heart,” said Jackie Pappas, executive director of the Asbury Park Chamber. “She is the kind of person who inspires others and the chamber unanimously voted to recognize her years of tireless work here.”
Strong as steel and as valuable as platinum, O’Brien’s engaging educational style began when she was a child in Southern California.
“My huge, loving family always made time to volunteer and give back in their own way,” O’Brien said. “My parents, aunts, uncles and cousins found ways to use their talents and interests to help their communities. Pat, my 90 year-old aunt still works three days a week at the Food Bank in Florida.”
Prior to moving to Asbury Park, in between commuting to her job in Manhattan, O’Brien volunteered with Northern New Jersey organizations that helped children with down syndrome and stray companion animals.
When O’Brien and her loving husband of over 20 years, Tom purchased a home here in 2002, she began looking for ways to help a city on the edge of its renaissance. They started by becoming members of a number of organizations focused on the history and culture of the city.
In 2007, she spearheaded the lamppost banner initiative, leveraging her professional expertise to develop a program that beautified the city and celebrated local artist and businesses. The program funded three feet wide by six feet tall banners sponsored by local businesses and hung from lampposts in the downtown and Main Street districts of town. For the launch year, the talented Ray Sternesky donated the artwork featured on the banners. Another year, ArtsCAP coordinated a juried art contest to spotlight local talent on the banners.
“We wanted to do more than just dress up the city with the banners,” she said. “We wanted to engage with and connect different parts of the city with something as simple and universal as art.”
During the banner program’s active years from 2007 to 2012, it raised over $30,000 for the Asbury Park Historical Society. A portion of the proceeds were also allocated to ArtsCAP and she is hopeful to work on a new banner program with the city soon.
O’Brien has also been the indomitable force behind the annual city-wide yard sales benefitting local animal rescue organizations and spotlighting the city’s uniquely beautiful neighborhoods.
“It’s thanks to the participation of the generous residents of our city that the yard sales happen,” O’Brien said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to help organize the event. Last year we had 35 homes involved and delivered car loads of supplies and funding to Wag-on-Inn and Rescue Ridge. Tom and I are glad to be a part of it.”
She and her husband put their time and money where their mouth is, rescuing and finding forever homes for almost 20 kittens and cats off the streets. As well, they have tirelessly supported other residents who’ve rescued the most innocent and vulnerable lost animals.
“Sonja makes a real difference in the world,” said Mary Beth Tkach of Rescue Ridge. “With her help, the people of Asbury Park selflessly join together to ensure dogs and cats receive medical care, housing and food. She is amazing.”
O’Brien also helped manage a book club, celebrate the beachfront with a women’s group, taught cooking classes, and served as a unofficial Asbury Park promoter by inviting people from all over the country to come to the city she loves. As a local realtor at the Conover Agency, she has been quoted in regional and national publications speaking about the city’s diversity and opportunity. One of her many talents is listening to who you are and identifying the key points Asbury Park has to offer you.
“I am humbled and thankful for this recognition from the chamber,” she said. “This is a town full of doers that believe in community. I’m grateful to be a part of Asbury Park’s fantastic and inspiring energy.”
The Carousel Awards are scheduled for May 13. Tickets available at AsburyParkChamber.com.