Elayne Bender (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Elayne Bender, executive director of East Mt. Airy Neighbors for the past 10 years, will retire at the end of June, it was announced by Tonyelle Cook-Artis, EMAN president.

Cook-Artis said that, during her tenure, Bender has worked to continue EMAN’s mission of “working to make a good community better.”

“Elayne’s dedication has helped increase awareness of the quality-of-life issues throughout East Mt. Airy, has strengthened our neighborhood and our elected officials,” she said. “Ranging from zoning to public education, to the arts, to everyday problem-solving, her service to our organization, and to the community, has been immeasurable.”

She said under Bender’s leadership, EMAN started an Internet newsletter, began having big annual fundraising events, started hosting an annual Christmas Tree Recycling event, and increased working partnerships among other organizations, including Awbury Arboretum, Mt. Airy Art Garage, Center in the Park, and Mt. Airy USA’s Schools Coalition.

“Elayne will be missed by the board, but I can only be happy for her after many years of service to East Mt. Airy Neighbors,” she added. “We wish her nothing but success in her future endeavors.”

Bender, 68, who grew up in Olney and has been a resident of East Mt. Airy for 31 years, said she moved to Mt. Airy with her husband John Siemiarowski because she wanted her children to grow up in a culturally, racially, religiously diverse environment that welcomes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

She said one of the reasons she loves living in Mt. Airy is its sense of community.

“I like the feeling of community,” said the mother of two adult children, Leah Wright and Jake Siemiarowski. “It’s actually a community, a neighborhood. It’s not just a place to live. I like the diverse housing stock and having Wissahickon Park in our backyard. It’s almost like being in a little town inside a big city.”

Bender, who studied history as an undergrad at Penn State, received her master’s degree in Asian History from Temple University and started her career as teacher at the former Miquon Upper School (now the Crefeld School) in Chestnut Hill.

She said her primary goal as executive director when she was first hired was to implement the goals the board had recently set including increasing the organization’s awareness in the community and fundraising.

“We needed to have EMAN become better known in the community,” she said. “We were less known and less active compared to other community neighborhood associations. So, one of my goals was to increase EMAN’s awareness in the community.”

She said another one of her goals was to support public elementary schools and music and arts programs in the neighborhood. She said she believes quality neighborhood elementary schools and music and art programs are “vital to a healthy community.”

Brad Copeland, executive director at Mt. Airy USA, lauded Bender’s work with his organization’s Mt. Airy Schools Coalition, which works to ensure that all area families have access to a “high quality public education.”

“As a former teacher, Elayne is clearly passionate and engaged in the topic of schools,” he said. “She’s been instrumental in bringing the neighbors and organizations together to find unity around this important issue.”

Mt. Airy Art Garage founders Arleen Olshan and Linda Slodki also praised Bender’s commitment to the community and her passion for the arts and education.

“She understands and champions children in underserved populations – particularly the public schools,” said Olshan, the interim executive director of MAAG. “During her tenure as executive director of EMAN, she directly supported the creation of four murals in the public schools, led by the Mt. Airy Art Garage.”

“We will never forget Elayne standing in front of the first mural and crying,” said Slodki, the former executive director of MAAG. “We will never forget Elayne clapping and crying at Emlen’s all school celebration for the Community of Pride (COP) Mural & Literacy Project for young artists. We will never forget Elayne joyfully buying kids’ COP original artwork. And we expect to be celebrating with Elayne at the first-ever Lovett Library COP Exhibition and reception on Saturday, June 9, toasting Emlen’s young artists.”

While Bender is retiring from her position at EMAN, she still plans to be very involved in her community.

“Now that I won’t have to go to meetings three nights a week, I will have time to do ‘fabric arts’ (quilting and knitting etc.).

The step-grandmother to teenagers Max and Celica and grandmother of two young grandchildren Isadora (Izzy) Wright, 4, and newborn Helene Siemiarowki, born on April 13, 2018, hopes to spend most of her free time cuddling and playing with her two young grandchildren.

When asked about the experience of being executive director of EMAN, she said it was an interesting job.

“When I was thinking about myself in high school, I never thought I would be going to parties with state senators and Council people,” she said. “I never would have imagined that I would have the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. It’s been a real privilege to get to know everyone. Everybody has a story, but not everyone has someone to listen to them.”

Bender said she “sees her job as the matchmaker.”

“I love being able to connect people with the services they need,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do. One of the things that happened during my tenure was to establish and strengthen relationships with other community organizations such as Mt. Airy Art Garage, the Mt. Airy Schools Coalition, and other neighborhood associations, with the goal of getting people to work together on a common issue because many hands make light work.”

When asked what advice she would give to the next executive director, she replied that the person EMAN would hire would already be respectful of diversity and different opinions.

“I would say, to maintain a sense of humor and a sense of perspective,” she said.

Cook-Artis added that EMAN will be conducting interviews in the upcoming weeks to secure a new executive director.

“EMAN continues to be committed to cooperating with local organizations, individuals and businesses located in the EMAN community and enhancing the quality of life for the residents of East Mt. Airy Neighbors,” she said.

For more information about the part-time executive director position at EMAN or to apply go to www.eastmountairy.org.