Putting Her Best Foot Forward

By the time Jeanne Johnson and her husband, Jeff, moved to Ridgewood in 2003 with their two young children, they were ready to settle down.

“We had already lived in several different places, and it was time to find a home where we would stay for a while,” Jeanne says. “Our kids were still young, and it was very important to me that we establish roots for them. I wanted them to feel like we were invested in this town, that this was their home.”

Being part of her new community quickly became a passion of Jeanne’s, and through the years she has done more than her part by helping keep her Ridgewood neighbors a little safer and more connected through coordinating the Safe Walks to School program as well as Ridgewood Walks.

How did you first become involved with volunteering?

After we moved, for a while when my son was very young, he was part of the Ridgewood Early Development program available to preschool kids with developmental delays. I was surprised to learn that they didn’t have in place a Home and School Association like many other schools in town. I thought that if anybody needed support it was these parents with special needs kids, so I started one, and it’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of. We raised money for in-house field trips for the kids for things like music programs and for the school playground, but mostly it was a support group for parents who are maybe having a tougher time adapting to parenting. I’m so happy that this program is still thriving and doing wonderful things 15 years later.

Then you turned your attention to safety?

My daughter was in elementary school back then and took the bus to school, but because of budget cuts, her bus was going to be being eliminated. This was very concerning because the kids who were losing their buses would be driven to school, putting more cars on the road at the busiest time of the day when many kids were walking to school. So one day, I took my kids, and we went door-to-door in our neighborhood to every home affected by the cuts and had petitions signed. And it worked—we got our bus back! This was around 2004, and after that, I coordinated the Keep Kids Alive Drive 25 campaign in town, which led to applying for grants through a program called Safe Routes to School. From those grants, the Village of Ridgewood was given almost $1.5 million for safety improvements such as the painted and brick crosswalks, improved lighting, blinking beacons and safety education programs.

Then came the “Safe Walks to School” program encouraging kids to walk to school? 

Yes, at first it was a Walk to School week, but it became so popular that it turned into a whole month, then for a month twice a year. I was thrilled to learn recently that the elementary schools are still running this program.

Why is walking to school so important for kids?

Our Village was developed as a walking town, and not all but many students live within a few miles of their school. It’s really important for parents to understand that it’s not just plain healthy to walk; if more kids walked and fewer cars were on the road, it’s also actually safer for children. Also, studies show that 20 minutes of rigorous exercise in the morning actually opens up the brain to take in information that they then retain. And almost as importantly, it’s community building. When you walk home with friends or kids in your neighborhood you may not know very well, you connect and build bonds.

And that led to Ridgewood Walks?

And that segued into starting Ridgewood Walks. Because of the divisiveness I saw in our country and in our community, I wanted to do something positive. I really believe that we can reconnect one community at a time through conversation. So we organized these guided walking tours downtown led by local residents. We started in the fall of 2017 with 48 tours and called it Walktoberfest and then did it again last June. Last fall, we had dozens of tours with more than 1,000 people participating. It’s been such a rewarding experience to watch people connect and build trust and friendships with one another. It’s glorious to witness this; you have no idea the satisfaction I’m getting from seeing it.

When does Ridgewood Walks start again this year?

We will begin Step into Summer on June 1 with lots of great tours. What’s come of it is we’ve seen these great relationships that we’ve built within Ridgewood and with residents from neighboring communities. The folks who walk with us, the local ambassadors who lead our tours and the businesses we partner with have all benefitted from our refreshing and informative strolls.

For more information, visit RidgewoodWalks.com.