Valerie Lester

Oak Park Township Trustee Candidate

JUMP TO: Questionnaire


*EDITOR’S NOTE: Candidates submitted their own biographies

Geof & I moved to Oak Park 15 years ago to be a part of a community (also my husband is a FLW fan), when Sara Lee moved my job to Downers Grove. I spent my career primarily in large food companies doing marketing and business management.

I retired (early) in ’17 with a commitment to use my skills and energy in service to the community. The Community Foundation’s Leader Lab was a great orientation and I got to know many wonderful community leaders. Pat Koko introduced me to the Township, where I have found many opportunities to serve.

Here are the highlights of my community service:

  • Township Senior Services: Senior Services Comm. (‘18- ), Meal delivery (‘18- ), Money Mgt. (‘18- )
  • Oak Park Regional Housing Center (‘18-  )
  • Arbor West Neighbors: Board (‘18-  )
  • OPRF Community Foundation: Volunteer Meet & Match Comm. (‘19-  ), Women Leaders in Philanthropy (‘20-  )
  • OPRF Community of Congregations: Treasurer  (‘09-‘12) 
  • OP Friends Meeting (Quaker): Treasurer (‘07-  ), Housing Forward Meal Coordinator (‘06-‘16)


Outside of campaigning to serve as township trustee, what experience do you have working or volunteering with the township? 

I am an active volunteer with the Township: a member of the Senior Services Committee, deliver meals each week, and help a low income senior in the Township Money Management program. Before the pandemic, I also volunteered in Memory Cafe. I am available to step up when needed (including being a pre-viewer of the Township’s new website).

I spent my career in business and marketing for companies including Ralston Purina, the Entenmann’s bakery & Sara Lee. I developed valuable skills in financial management and strategic planning, as well as, communications & marketing.

I am a graduate of the Community Foundation’s Leadership Lab (designed to help strengthen local community leadership). I have contributed to the community in many ways: as a regular volunteer with the Oak Park Regional Housing Center & the Community Foundation volunteer committee, a board member of Arbor West Neighbors, and a lifelong Quaker and Treasurer of the Oak Park Friends Meeting. I also am a past Treasurer of the Community of Congregations.

I am running to support and strengthen the Township and help us reach more who need a helping hand. I bring energy, fresh ideas and problem solving skills to the Township Board.

What areas of service provided by the township need expansion and how do you intend to carry that out, while keeping taxation reasonable?

My highest priority is responding to the needs and challenges created by the pandemic and the resulting economic and social impacts. I don’t expect we fully understand the complete toll this pandemic is taking. Early indications are that mental health has suffered as we’ve all been more isolated. As we learn the needs, I want to help the Township adapt to the need and address the challenges.

The work the Township does is often the work that foundations and grant funders are interested in supporting.

How as trustee can you help the township address and overcome the novel challenges of operating mid-pandemic and post-pandemic? What are those challenges?

The Township has done an admirable job stepping up to the challenge, keeping staff & clients safe while delivering essential services: transportation to medical appts, serving twice the # of meals in’20 than ’19, a hotline to help seniors get registered to be vaccinated, supporting the schools, youth, and mental health partners…

I know the staff has been working on “opening plans”, when that is advisable. I don’t expect we fully understand the complete toll this pandemic is taking. Two areas of increased concern are: adapting to the mental health needs of this crisis and supporting individuals and families struggling with substance abuse. I will help the Township adapt and address new challenges (and old) with fresh thinking and problem solving skills.

The other critical challenge for the community – I believe it is time for the village to re-imagine policing so all residents feel safe. Policing is the responsibility of the Village government, and the Township should be at the table, especially Youth Services & the Mental Health Board.

How will you increase community engagement and awareness of township services?

It’s most important that we engage those who need a helping hand. Today, the Township often works through partners including hospitals, schools and social service agencies (the Wednesday Journal gives the Assessor good visibility). We need to make sure our partners know all that the Township does, so they are not just referring to the initiatives they are most connected to. The Township can do a better job building awareness across its services, for example, sharing information on the broad range of services the Township offers with the many property owners who use the Assessors services.

The Township needs to build awareness (which may lead to engagement now, or later). If I could get one message out, it would be: the Township should be your 1st call if you need a helping hand and you don’t know who to ask – this is a resource rich community, if the Township can’t help, they probably know who can.

Awareness of what the Township does will also help the community appreciate how much it does for the community – helping Oak Park (and River Forest) be a more welcoming and compassionate community.

A good start is increasing presence in community media – the Wednesday Journal, as well as Oak Leaves and the FYI (distributed by the Village). Testimonials and real life stories can help address the challenge that Township Services aren’t important until you need them.

The Township has an opportunity to expand it’s outreach to the broader community – building partnerships with other government bodies (the village, schools, library & park district), broadening existing partnerships and outreach to new ones (congregations and community groups). The Library is a community hub for information. We need to try new approaches, for example, over 40% of Oak Parkers are renters. We can share information through the Housing Center and the large building owners/managers to reach renters providing information in their new renter packets.

How can the township increase the equitability of its services, considering the many different facets of equity?

The Township is focused on the most vulnerable in this community, the Board needs to lead by making sure we are listening to, adapting, supporting and demonstrating respect to those involved and impacted. Equity means everyone has the same opportunity to achieve.

The Township Board, staff and clients are diverse (and I hope the voters retain that diversity) – a good place to start but it does not ensure equity. The Board needs to approach decisions with an “equity lens” (an “equity lens” is to be deliberately inclusive as decisions are made, to help the decision makers focus on equity in both their process and outcomes). It is important to listen with an open mind to the input, needs and aspirations of all, and also consider who might be left out of the process.

I am an active volunteer within the Township, I will continue – to understand our clients and staff at the program level. The Township needs to proactively seek to feedback, and act compassionately and fairly on input from staff, clients, partners and the community (allowing for confidentiality).

How can the township improve its reach and grow its service offering without increasing the tax burden on citizens? 

The work the Township does is often the work that foundations and grant funders are interested in supporting. The Township needs at least a part time staff member to research grants, apply, track and report progress to funders. Funders renew grants where they’re seeing results.

  • The tax burden from the Township is 2% of our property tax bill.
  • The Township is one of the few local gov’t taxing bodies that did not max their ability to tax when the TIF rolled off last year.
  • Township pension contributions are manageable because pensions have been funded appropriately.

My husband is a small landlord (we received 5 Oak Park property tax bills) and as a result we especially recognize the property tax burden in the village. I will continue that practice of responsible stewardship.

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