By: Jillian Risberg
Her son was born with autism and is developmentally disabled. That explains Lucy “Aileen” Rivera’s tireless advocacy on behalf of those with special needs — for the councilwoman, it’s personal.
Rivera says it all started in 2009 when she learned her son Daniel, 33, was severely beaten by a staffer at the state-run North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa. The facility has since been shut down by former Gov. Chris Christie.
“That birthed a new me and from that point on I started advocating and lobbying for change in the system,” Rivera says, referring to her fight to persuade New Jersey legislators on both sides of the aisle and high-ranking state officials to protect this vulnerable population.
“Which I did accomplish but can’t say I did all myself,” she says. “It’s my team — in the beginning it was Martha Cray (whose son William died in a group home) and me.”
They later joined forces with Tom Komninos and successfully championed the ‘Stephen Komninos’ Law,’ signed by Christie on Oct. 6, 2017.
“It was a seven-year battle actively advocating and I’m the original advocate on that,” Rivera says.
And she went from town to town asking municipalities to support a resolution of the law and took it all the way to Trenton. It’s being enforced and implemented by the New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS) as of May 2018.
The bill was named for Stephen Komninos, a 22-year-old man with intellectual disabilities who choked to death in 2007 when his caregiver left him unattended against doctor’s orders at a residential facility.
“So every caregiver in the state of New Jersey and every agency in the state that takes care of people with developmental disabilities and special needs has to abide by the law,” Rivera says.
Linda Adler calls Rivera selfless.
“She has shown so much perseverance and heart in everything she does for people with developmental disabilities,” says Adler, of Wayne. “I have great admiration for her courage.”
A few days after Rivera approached her own town of Wayne about the law, she mentioned to Cray and Komninos how she would love to get more involved in her community, but was thinking along the lines of volunteering.
“And that’s when they said to me, would you consider running for councilwoman,” a shocked Rivera told them she didn’t know anything about politics.
But she has been a law firm office manager (her day job) for the past 29 years, which has given the councilwoman the foresight and experience to help people overcome great obstacles, so it wasn’t a complete stretch.
“I decided to run because I’ve always been passionate about helping people,” the councilwoman says. “I thought it was a great chance for me to advocate for the residents in my town.”
And that loyalty isn’t lost on Debbie Starr.
“Aileen has proven her dedication with her ‘people first’ attitude, hard work and persistence,” the purchasing director says, adding that Rivera is a motivator and true leader for the community.
According to the councilwoman, she knocked on more than 2,000 doors and took her post in 2016.
“They believed in me and voted for me,” Rivera says. “My platform was cut taxes, protect open space, help attract new businesses and revitalize the Fifth Ward shopping and commercial centers.”
She is a hands-on champion of the residents, supporting ordinances and resolutions that enhance the quality of life in the township from major projects and infrastructure improvements (ranging from community growth to land use) to finances and strategic planning.
And she is committed to working with the members of the Wayne Town Council to hold-the-line on property taxes and is opposed to re-zoning Wayne, but is all about supporting those who currently set up shop across the township’s 25 miles and attracting new businesses.
“We have the Wayne Hills Mall that’s now being redeveloped, with a ShopRite and retail stores,” Rivera says. “I’m in favor of the businesses because it’s a positive ratable and creates jobs.”
During her tenure as a councilwoman she gave proclamations for Law Enforcement Appreciation, Developmental Disability Awareness, Autism Awareness, Prematurity Awareness, small businesses, Coaches/Special Olympics, Foundation for the Handicapped, Special Needs Citizens and a teacher.
According to Tama DeBoer, Rivera’s work as a councilwoman exemplifies her commitment to the residents of Wayne.
Located in the heart of Passaic County, the township is less than 20 miles from midtown Manhattan and with a population of 55,000 it has that small town charm that many crave, along with big city amenities.
From vital shopping districts and business centers to a bustling real estate market, lake communities loaded with recreational facilities and museums, the modern free public library, exceptional public school system and William Paterson University, Rivera is a proud Wayne resident who loves her community and is looking forward to enhancing her hometown and all it has to offer.
“When she recognized a speeding issue on Knox Terrace, she implemented speed signs to remind residents of the speed restriction on that street,” says DeBoer, a Verizon business manager. “Aileen (also) put together a team to paint fire hydrants in town to help with their visibility for firefighters and save taxpayers money.”
And Rivera has issued various firefighter and police proclamations for their endless efforts.
“Aileen has made Wayne a better place for its residents,” DeBoer says.
The councilwoman truly cares about the township and representing its people. For those who have questions or comments, Rivera says they should reach out directly by calling her extension or shoot her an email and she will gladly respond.
“I want to do more for our town, better for our town,” Rivera says. “And it’s important that people be involved and come to the council meetings because they see what’s going on and how their representatives are committed to them.”
She’s also always there for the seniors. When they needed a bigger bus with a wider aisle, Rivera made that happen.
The councilwoman says she is enjoying every moment of the journey.
“Because I am able to address the needs and concerns of my constituents,” Rivera says. “I am committed to be a voice for them.”
Rivera is using that voice all over. She currently serves as a council liaison for the Local Assistance Board and previously held the same position for the Wayne Public Library, Environmental Commission and Economic Development Commission.
And the councilwoman shares her energy and expertise with the people by serving as the Valley Terrace Condo Association Treasurer and representing various local organizations, including the Wayne PAL.
The lessons learned as an advocate and as a mother have given Rivera the strength and guidance needed to confidently work as a councilwoman.
“I am currently working on another law with Martha, we’re pushing for surveillance cameras in these group homes,” the councilwoman says. “We just got the draft from a legislator. They don’t want us to release it yet until we meet with them.”
In 2017 she received the ‘Citizen of the Year Award’ by the Wayne Elks Lodge, Proclamation from the Wayne Township Council, Joint Legislative Resolution from the State of New Jersey and from the Senate and General Assembly of New Jersey.
The Passaic County Freeholders and Advisory Council on Disability recognized Rivera as a ‘Champion for Disabilities’ in 2016 for protecting the developmentally disabled and their families.
As for how Daniel is doing today, the councilwoman says the Self-Directed Employee (SDE) option is helping.
“He’s in his own apartment and his funding followed him. I hire who’s going to work for my son and the state pays them,” Rivera says. “It would be nice if more families would be able to do it. It’s a lot of work, but for me — it’s worth it because I’m like the management of his house. So I make sure that people are doing their job; helping my son to learn life skills, with the cleaning, the laundry, food shopping, etc.”
Maybe it all happened for a reason how Rivera fell into politics because of Daniel and everything he’s endured and this is what she was meant to do, she found her purpose.
“We’re at a different place in life and I am so thankful for where we’re at and this is why I want to continue being a councilwoman, being an advocate for my town, my residents,” Rivera says. “I’m paying it forward with good deeds.”
At the end of the day, she also wants to keep bringing awareness to the plight of those with autism and developmental disabilities, so that people can really grasp what it means.
Because there’s still such a stigma, and pervasive intolerance — it doesn’t make it easy for someone with the disorder and all who love them.
“They want to be accepted like everybody else,” Rivera says. “Please be understanding and patient with them. You have to understand their language and how they perceive things and they can understand you.”