Beth Ortega has made her hometown a priority in her life. That’s why taking on the O’Fallon Illuminated Holiday Parade chairmanship with little time to prepare was undaunting.
And because of her energy and enthusiasm, scores of volunteers joined her in pulling off “saving Christmas.”
She loved working on the Nov. 25 event so much, she will tackle it again.
“I will be back! We have some great ideas for an even better experience next year. Everyone is welcome to help with this free, fun event,” she said.
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The Van Etten family, who had given their heart and soul to the annual event, could no longer organize it. Beth did not want it to be canceled.
“The Van Etten family worked very hard on the parade for so long and made something amazing. They did it for the whole town to enjoy. I wanted to find a way to honor that tradition and make it bigger than ever before — let people have the chance to show them their work was and is loved and appreciated.
“It was also time for another generation to step in and take on the work. I also am one of those crazy, glass-half-full people, and I knew people would step up and make this epic,” she said. “Santa Claus is my hero. But also because Christmas is about bringing people together, spreading joy, and finding time for family and friends. And the parade is an opportunity to make all that tangible.”
She is grateful to the community for responding so eagerly to the parade.
“Look what we did with three weeks! I can’t wait to show you what a whole year of planning can become,” Ortega said.
They had such a good time meeting new friends and new families, it made the experience special, she said.
“The magic of the lights and then seeing the kids with Santa, the post-parade bonfire and the crowd helping each other make s’mores,” she recalled fondly.
She was in awe of the holiday spirit she witnessed.
“Seeing people with their phones put away, talking to each other, and making new friends. It was what I’ve always wanted to have again here,” she said. “I grew up that way, where O’Fallon welcomed everyone — young and old — and celebrated our friendships with community events. I love nothing more than seeing it return!”
She also wanted to change some attitudes.
“There has long been a stigma in O’Fallon that you are either ‘old O’Fallon,’ referring to long-standing community members who, fairly or not, are seen as the ones who run the town, or a ‘newbie,’ who is an odd man out at all times,” she said. “I wanted, not only to keep our traditions going, but also use this chance to let people know that we are one community, where everyone is welcome, invited, included, and needed. Break some barriers, fix some bad habits, and bring in some new recruits to carry the load.
“This parade opened doors for volunteering and an opportunity to work together — every one of every age from here and surrounding communities. People miss having a community to be a part of, and this shows that we definitely have one that wants you in it.”
A grateful community
Beth and her “amazing group of volunteers” was recently honored by the city. Wearing their “I Saved Christmas” hooded sweatshirts, the group received a proclamation from Mayor Herb Roach.
“This year’s parade was one of the greatest in memory. Thank you to all,” Roach said.
Alderman Ross Rosenberg, a longtime friend, marveled at Ortega’s can-do spirit.
“When saying complimentary words about someone, often times some people say, ‘The word ‘can’t’ isn’t in their vocabulary.’ However, Beth knows ‘can’t’ very well — the difference in someone like Beth is that her ‘can’t’ comes in the form of, ‘I can’t wait to get involved’ or ‘I can’t imagine not being there to help a community member in their time of need,’ he said.
“It’s rumored that she never sleeps. This allows her eight additional hours, on average, to perform the Superwoman things that she does for everyone around her,” Rosenberg said. “She brings life to everything she does in the community and one would have to try very hard to not have a good time when she’s around.”
All this was evident when she became parade chairman.
“Not only did she step forward to take it on, she is such a gifted leader that, within a extremely short period of time, there were hordes of community members lock-step behind her willing to assist. Beth epitomizes, ‘Someone You Should Know,’ ” he said.
A local girl
Ortega grew up in O’Fallon.
“My parents moved here when I was 2 years old for the schools, and for the amazing community feel it had,” she said. “We had the best childhood, living on Dartmouth Drive, just down from a Evans Grade School. We played outside every day and night until one of our many neighborhood ‘parents’ would send us home. We played stick ball in the vacant lot. Every one of every age just filled the streets. It was a magical time, and we didn’t even know it,” she said.
She headed to Kentucky for a while in college, and then moved to Missouri. But every time she moved away, she would come right back.
“There is a familial presence here, not just from familiarity, but a community of loving and giving people, that I really just don’t want to live without. And with all our recent growth and new developments — we have a vegan bakery — it just keeps getting better,” she said.
She really aspired to be a Harlem Globetrotter. But instead has been in real estate now for nearly 20 years. She operates the Beth Ortega Group Real Estate in O’Fallon, a Re/Max affiliate. Her business partner is Emily Greenstreet. They received the 2015-2016 Community Involvement Award from the Realtors Association of Southern Illinois.
“My mom and aunt used to spend Saturdays looking at houses, just driving through neighborhoods and getting ideas for their dream homes. It was my favorite thing to do,” she said. “When I realized I couldn’t be a Globetrotter, due to being short and untalented, I had to find something else I loved. I love people, and I love houses, and I love solving problems. It’s a perfect fit,” she said.
But a community helps a house become a home, she said. That’s why she digs in and gets involved.
“We have no home without community involvement. A house is just a place. Our community makes it home,” she said.
Ortega turned recently 40. So how does it feel?
“Fantastic! Life is still amazing me every day. It’s one heck of a fun ride,” she said.
Besides civic projects and work, Beth also has a large, loving family. She has been married to Jeff Ortega for 16 years.
“He is the best decision I ever made and the most fantastic human I’ve ever met. Still every bit as in love with him as day one,” she said. “We have five amazing boys — a his, mine and ours deal — but as far as we both are concerned, they are all ours, equally.”
Their oldest, Jeffrey, passed away at 18.
Justin is now 23 and married. He and his wife Samantha are both away serving the country but plan to establish their roots in O’Fallon in the near future.
Jackson is about to turn 20. Jacob is 14, and their youngest son, Jake Santiago “Santi” is 3.
“They are amazing little humans and they make every day an adventure,” she said.
So, what is next for this human Energizer Bunny?
“I will nap, then take over the world, and make time to see ‘Star Wars’ again in between. Beyond that, I’m not quite sure, but I always find some kind of fun to get into! My business is fantastic, with a special thanks to my business partner Emily, and signs of more community events are certainly on the horizon,” she said.
Emily’s husband Jon Greenstreet, who operates Bike Surgeon, is described by Beth as “an amazing co-conspirator in this adventure.”
“He and I make quite a team when it comes to getting things done for our town. They both would probably love for me to take a day, but I really am not wired for that,” she said.
Among her favorite non-profit organizations to support is Lifelong Music in O’Fallon Schools. Their trivia night is in January.
Another one, the John Wilt Foundation, honors her late best friend, 1st Lt. John Wilt. It hots an annual 5K Run in O’Fallon in October.
“John did everything for everyone and taught me to be open and loving to the world. So, I try to keep his legacy going,” she said.
So what words of advice does the lady who saved Christmas have for others?
“I think people spend a lot of time worrying about the wrong things, and missing out on what matters. If I can give everyone even just a little of the family I have, the love we give, then life becomes so much better and bigger than just us,” she said. “In the end, it’s what you did that matters, and it’s the only thing that does. The memories you leave behind with others is all that you really have to give.”
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: Always forgive, never regret. We lost our oldest son, Jeffrey, in 2011.
A few days after he passed away, my mom was helping us go through his things, and she found a large sketch pad, and he had written that in large letters across the page. It’s my most treasured thing, the paper itself and the importance of what it says. In his short 18 years, he learned more than most of us ever do.
I live life differently since I lost him. Everyday is an opportunity to do something great. We try not to waste any days, and hope not to waste any time on anger. It is a beautiful gift, and a beautiful way to live.
Q: Whom do you most admire?
A: That’s an easy one. My husband, Jeff. He is the strength I draw from daily. He didn’t have the easiest path to adulthood, and he not only made it, but crushes it daily, and doesn’t believe in excuses.
Without him, I would not be who I am today and certainly wouldn’t be able to do the many things I’m involved in. He has my back, 100 percent of the time. He is like that for everyone he meets — giving and loving and accepting. I admire his drive and his ability to overcome mountains and treat them like the smallest stepping stone.
Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: Lin-Manuel Miranda. He is an incredible creative talent, with an incredibly giving heart. He seems to see the world without limits, and people without color. His ability to see beyond the surface of things and capture the humanity of a situation. Well, there is a lot of awesome in that man.
If you haven’t heard his song “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the musical “Hamilton,” find it and listen.
Lin-Manuel Miranda personally has not lost a child, yet he was able to write about it for his characters in a manner that actually represents how it truly feels in the most honest way my I have heard. And to think of that small representation of his empathy, of the work he does for Puerto Rico since the hurricane, and on many aspects of human rights before that, he is someone worth meeting — someone seeming to be worthy of the platform he gets to speak from.
Q: What is the last book that you read?
A: “Goodnight Groot,” a children’s bedtime book based on the characters from “Guardians of the Galaxy.” My 3-year-old loves it!
I don’t have the down time or the desire for reading for pleasure on my own. My husband has a list a mile long of books he would love for me to read, but it isn’t something I enjoy.
I don’t enjoy audio books, either — already tried that. I think very fast. I speak very fast, and reading just takes forever to get to the point. I’m sure I am missing out and would love to be able to say I can sit back and read a book and expand my world, but I never have liked it, not even a little. I’ve tried, many times, and even with age, no change.
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: I run. I just got started back to running after a few years of health issues. I absolutely love it. It gives me all the energy it takes to get through these crazy days with all I do. It also gives me the focus I need to keep everything going smoothly. It’s amazing what you can do in a day with an uncluttered mind.
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?
A: Pretty empty and clean. My real estate work is handled digitally. A laptop, phone, iPad can hold everything I need for a day. And it keeps it all very organized and streamlined. That makes me want everything in life to be that simple.
Q: What did you want to do career wise when you were growing up?
A: I wanted to be a Harlem Globetrotter. It still is my dream. And I have amazing parents that always support my goals.
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A: Humor. I can find the fun in any room, and I absolutely love to laugh. I don’t sweat the small stuff, and I don’t engage with negative people, and I definitely love to find the “yes” in everyone else’s “no.” Everything has a solution, an answer, or an option.
Q: What irritates you most?
A: Humans that are bad to other humans. I cannot understand that. I don’t understand the need to be mean, or hateful, or even indifferent to others. We have a great capacity for love, and it is wasted too often.
Q: What type of music do you listen to?
A: Everything! I love music. My playlist includes Yo-Yo Ma, “Imagine Dragons,” Macklemore, Luke Bryant, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Kaleo, Andra Day, New World Spirits. I could rattle off a thousand names and it wouldn’t be enough.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: The challenge! Nothing is ever the same in this job, nothing is easy, and you can only expect the unexpected. This is not a job for the weak or the lazy or the uneducated. You have to be the smartest in the room at all times, have your moral compass always pointed in the right direction, and a knowledge level equivalent to a doctorate in psychology and law would certainly be beneficial. We have a team in this industry — where you have to work with your competitors while working for your client. It’s a balance, and it’s a lot of a fun, most of the time.
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: I’d be Santa Claus, all over the world. He has the best gig ever.
Q: When they make a movie of your life, who would play you?
A: Will Ferrell.
Q: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?
A: Sunscreen. I can find a way off the island and back home, but I can’t live without my sunscreen.