When I Grow Up

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Kristen Coppola, Corporate Service Manager.

Kristen Coppola

Kristen Coppola, Jersey Cares Corporate Service Manager

During a month that honors successful, trailblazing female figures, it is almost impossible to pick just one inspirational woman in my life. So, I decided to reference a third grade assignment: “Who do you want to be like when you grow up?” At the time I think I said Sporty Spice to seem cool, but today my answer is surprisingly not a British Pop Star.


When I grow up I want to be like my mother. Of course I could go on and on about her inspirational attributes, but a specific moment of weakness is ingrained in my memory. One day we were having a conversation – the kind when you start to analyze every aspect of your life – and she asked “When I die, what will I be remembered by? I haven’t done anything significant.” I empathized with her for a minute, but it soon dawned on me that if she were to die, her friends and family would mourn her infinitely more than an iconic figure they have never met. In this moment, I realized you don’t have to change the world to be remembered, and you don’t have to touch thousands of lives to make a significant impact.

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Sharon Coppola, Kristen’s mom and inspiration

I went into the non-profit field in hopes that I could have the same affect on one person’s life as my mom has had on mine. I’m not sure I can ever be like my mom when I ‘grow up’, but I know a good place to start, and that is to volunteer. Volunteer to help a colleague with their work, volunteer to hold open the door, volunteer to donate a coat for a person in need. Jersey Cares has limitless opportunities to change a person’s life, just by becoming a volunteer. So next time you find yourself in a conversation – the kind when you start to analyze every aspect of your life – I hope you remember women like my mom, and realize you can always be an inspiration to someone.

Audrey Hepburn’s Influence

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Kaitlyn Brady, Jersey Cares Senior Manager, Corporate Relations.

I wrote my college application essay about Audrey Hepburn. While growing up watching old movies, she became one of my favorite actresses and thus one of the reasons I wanted to study film. Her acting talents paired with her humanitarian efforts seemed like a great way to talk about my interests and qualifications and convince these colleges that they should accept me. Nearly ten years later, I don’t quite remember the details of the essay that’s now lost on my parents’ defunct desktop computer, but I feel inspired by Hepburn more than ever.  

Kaitlyn Brady

Kaitlyn Brady, Senior Manager, Corporate Relations

After graduating from the University of Rochester with majors in Film and Media Studies and English, I started an AmeriCorps term at Jersey Cares. Unlike some of my colleagues who had been heavily involved in Habitat for Humanity or Alternative Spring Breaks in college, I had minimal experience with hands on volunteering. All that changed during my AmeriCorps term. I led volunteer groups at homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, schools in disrepair, and parks littered with garbage and debris. Each and every homeowner, student, administrator, and individual we interacted with and served was so grateful. The difference I made inspired me to stay at Jersey Cares once my AmeriCorps term of service was completed. 

Now, Hepburn’s talents, inspirational words, and legacy resonate with me on a different level than when I applied to college. Her family fled Belgium to the Netherlands before the start of World War II, in the hopes of avoiding any invasions. When Holland was taken over by Germany, Hepburn, like the rest of the country, suffered from malnutrition and had loved ones sent to labor camps. She participated in dance performances to raise money for the Dutch resistance. As an actress, she strategically and thoughtfully chose her roles and also began a business partnership with Givenchy. Hepburn focused on her humanitarian efforts as she stopped taking acting roles. She was appointed Goodwill Ambassador at UNICEF and was subsequently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for this work. While working with UNICEF, she traveled to several countries, visiting and helping with the organization’s various programs. When not on these field trips, she still worked tirelessly for UNICEF by testifying before United States Congress, hosting award ceremonies, making speeches, giving interviews, and so much more. Hepburn may be most known for being an elegant fashion icon, but she is so much more than that.  Her background and career demonstrate an incredibly resilient, compassionate woman with business acumen and an undeniable desire to help others.  

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Audrey Hepburn as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF


Hepburn’s shift in focus from acting to her humanitarian efforts might be explained by her own quote, “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” This quote means so much more to me now than when I first reflected on Hepburn’s influence on my life. I was accepted to college and graduated with that Film and Media Studies degree, but I have found a path that allows me to make good use of that second hand and help others.


Gender Vigilante


Evan Lewis, Jersey Cares Corporate Relations Manager

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Evan Lewis, Jersey Cares Corporate Relations Manager.

When I was growing up, I found myself around men much more than I found myself around women. A short list of these men would include my dad, two brothers, no sisters, the kids in my neighborhood were all boys, my all male sports teams, all of my close friends throughout High School were guys, my lack of a girlfriend didn’t help, my college dorm was strictly all male, and my first two jobs only had only one female employee (combined). So I am not proud to say that I didn’t have many influential female figures in my life, besides my mother… love you mom. So rather than trying to pinpoint a single woman who has been influential in my life, perhaps I can explain how I went from being constantly surrounded and influenced by men, to being surrounded and influenced by women on a daily basis, and how  that’s had a significant impact on my life. 

Now that I am a working adult, or at least appear like a working adult, my life has changed quite a bit since my testosterone surrounded youth. In fact, there was one decision I made in college that significantly changed the path of my career and the dynamic of gender in my life. When I was a senior in High School, I was accepted to the Rutgers University School of Engineering and I was thrilled to attend. I had very strong skills in Math and Physics during High School, so I thought engineering would be the perfect fit. In the fall of 2009, I packed my things and settled into my all-male dorm building eager to learn. I knew engineering was a popular field for men, but I didn’t realize how male dominated the School of Engineering at Rutgers would be. In fact my freshman year dorm was the only all-male dorm at Rutgers and it just so happened to be full of all the engineering majors. After struggling with courses such as Chemistry, Calculus II, and others my freshman year, I was beginning to have second thoughts about a degree in engineering. It was at this time where I can actually recall a moment of pure self-reflection where I asked myself, is this really what I want to do? And just like that, I decided to switch majors.  Three years later, in the spring of 2013, I graduated with a degree in Anthropology and a minor in Psychology. By choosing such a field of study, it was clear to all people close to me that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. However, I did have an interest in the not-for-profit industry, so I thought that could be a possible avenue for the beginning stages of my career. After graduation, I worked a couple of part-time gigs for a few months until I came across a non-profit organization called City Year New York. At City Year, I was an AmeriCorps member working with a team of 11 recent college graduates (4 men, 7 women) at a K-8 school in East Harlem, New York. Anyway, this is where I began to realize that the nonprofit field was comprised of more women than men. I did not realize the extent of this gender imbalance until I secured a position at Jersey Cares.

When I was first hired by Jersey Cares in September of 2014, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. This was my first full-time salaried position. Including myself, there were a total of four men working in the Jersey Cares office my first few months, one of which held a supervisory role and one of which was the Executive Director of the organization. The third male worked in a different department than I did. Needless to say, I felt a bit isolated as a man within the organization. During my first few months, I felt shy and slightly intimidated by the overwhelming presence of women in the office. I thought that my work style was much different, I was unable to relate, and I couldn’t make friends. I thought that being a man gave me a disadvantage. As more time passed by, there was a bit of turnover within the organization and new employees started to funnel in while old employees moved on to other opportunities. Unsurprisingly, all of the new employees were women, and to be honest, there are not that many men out there applying for a position at Jersey Cares (even though there should be). Even though the new employees were women, this suddenly became a turning point for my confidence as an employee at Jersey Cares. I became less shy, no longer was intimidated by anyone in the office, and became friendly with everyone. Why the sudden change in attitude? Maybe I was more comfortable with my work and didn’t necessarily have a great connection with the employees who recently left the organization.  Maybe my previous attitude of being shy and intimidated didn’t have anything to do with the male-female ratio in our office. Maybe the new employees as individuals, not women, had a style of work and overall personality that best fit with mine.

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Ugly Sweater Party at Jersey Cares

 You will notice in the previous paragraph that I stated, “I thought that being a man gave me a disadvantage.” Isn’t that a ridiculous statement? A man in this country, especially a white man in the country, should never utter those words. Though I most likely did not have a disadvantage, that is truly how I felt at the time.  I realized that I had some preconceived notions about the people I worked with during my first few months with Jersey Cares because they were women.  Those preconceived notions may have been formed with some help from of my lack of confidence, but nonetheless I probably wouldn’t have felt that I was disadvantaged if there were more men in the office. The lesson I learned here is that it is very difficult not to have gender biases and we have to make more of an effort to see people as individuals rather than classify them based on their initial appearance. I know that you’ve probably heard that before, but it’s true. It’s especially true for people like me. I believe myself to be a very open-minded young man who has always believed in equality and civil rights for everyone. That doesn’t mean that I can sometimes miss a certain nuance or detail of a particular social situation. We have to be constantly vigilant on the quest for gender equality.  The women that I currently work with on a daily basis are smart, detail oriented, and very good at their jobs, which should not at all come as a surprise. They have indirectly given me more confidence and have made me more aware of the sensitivity of gender biases.  With that being said, I am happy with my job, I currently have a girlfriend that I have been dating for almost two years, and I still love my mom.  I will continue to stay vigilant in getting rid of any gender biases that I may still have and I encourage every person, woman or man, to do that same.


Just to Learn


Akeera Weathers, Service Events Coordinator

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Akeera Weathers, Jersey Cares Service Events Manager

I was always taught that teaching doesn’t begin in school; it starts at home, but at some point in time both environments have to coincide for the greater good of the child. Over the years, I have encountered a number of women who have taught me valuable lessons, but there is one person who will always stand out to me; my 5th grade teacher Mrs. Crystal Collins-Gardner.

My elementary school was small, so everyone knew everyone. During my 4th grade year, I remember hearing current and former students speak about how tough Mrs. Collin-Gardner was as a teacher and how mean she was to her students. Her presence caused fear in a large majority of the student body, but amongst her fellow colleagues she was highly respected. There were days when you can hear teachers, especially my teacher at the time; tell their class, “I can’t wait for you to get to Mrs. Collins-Gardner’s class”. It seemed to be an inside joke that only the faculty was in on, because students, including myself, were petrified of that dreadful day.

Over the summer I begged my parents to put me in a new school so I did not have to face her. Of course, they ignored my tearful request. Instead, on the first day of school they dropped me off with a smile on their face and gave me a chipper “Have a good day”. How could I have a good day when I was preparing to face a modern day ‘Ms. Trunchbull’? Once I heard the bell ring for students to go to their respective lines I knew there was no way out. She stood to the left of my class line with a stern face and poise posture. I remember glancing at her out the corner of my eye while saying the Pledge of Allegiance and thinking to myself, “This lady looks scary”. It was clear everyone in my class felt the same way because we walked to our third floor classroom military style. With the exception of Mrs. Collins-Gardner aggressive tone ordering us to pass to the next landing and stop at the classroom door, there was not as much of a whisper on the “upper class” floor.

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Mrs. Collins-Gardner

As I sat at my desk I patiently waited to meet the horrible woman that so many before had spoken of. She stood in front of the classroom, looked at each of us and asked, “Who is here just to learn?” While scanning the classroom filled with raised hands she returned to her desk and said we all could pack our book bags and return to the gym. Although we were relieved, we were also confused. As we began to pack our things and form a line she stood in front of us and in a subtle voice said, “I don’t teach just so my students can learn. I teach so my students can understand; so that they can prosper and be great. You’re all potential leaders. You’re destined for greatness, but if you just want to learn and not comprehend you are more than welcome to leave my classroom. So I’ll ask again, who is here just to learn?”


Over the school year I began to realize that Mrs. Collins-Gardner wasn’t what she was portrayed to be. Yes, to a certain extent she was a tough teacher, but that was solely because she wanted the best for her students and by all means she was going to bring out the best in us. She challenged us to do better and be better, but there was something about me that ignited her to become more than my school teacher, but also my life coach. I never thought a woman I once feared would become one of the most important people in my life.

Throughout the years she has encouraged me to be better and do better. Most challenges were easily achievable, while others caused vulnerable, uncomfortable and out of the box moments. As much as I wanted to give up and take the easy way out, she was always in my corner encouraging me to take my progression in stride. I was experiencing growth pains that in the long run would make me stronger and wiser.

Tom Ziglar once said, “What you feed your mind determines your appetite.” Much gratitude is due to Mrs. Collins-Gardner for making sure I was always fed positivity and motivation. To the world she may be just a teacher, but to me she is an inspiration.

Hope Travels

Jenny Headshot

Jennifer Lewellen, Jersey Cares Service Events Manager

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Jennifer Lewellen, Jersey Cares Service Events Manager.


It was the first flight on my very first trip abroad and I could barely contain my excitement. I could not wait to taste fresh, exotic dishes and take photographs of my favorite historical monuments. All of my expectations were innocent, yet a bit selfish. I expected to become a sponge, soaking up all the “culture” that I could in ten days. I would later realize that the memories that really lasted were the ones I shared with the people I met while I was there.

Sitting next to me on the plane was my Aunt Hope, who had always promised to take me on my first trip abroad after high school. Picture a short-haired, prosthetic leg-wearing, blog-writing, travelling, Paralympic medaled-athlete. That’s Aunt Hope.

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Hope and Jennifer in The Netherlands


While I have obviously been inspired by my aunt’s incredible attitude and determination after losing her leg at a young age, my life has been touched even more so by her wandering spirit. When I was in elementary school, she gave me an interactive globe as a birthday present. I spent hours spinning the globe and seeing where my pointed finger would land, wondering what the people looked like in these countries, what they wore, what they ate, and what it would feel like to walk down their streets. Every time Aunt Hope came back from one of her trips to Japan or Israel or Germany, she would bring me some coins and tell me about everything she learned from her new international friends. I wanted to be exactly like her one day-to travel the globe, meet new people, and broaden my horizons.

When I was older and finally did start to travel, my love for new places grew into a love for new people. Seeing how people lived differently than I did everywhere I went, I wanted to also understand their struggles. I grew up visiting downtown Chicago, where my only run in with poverty might be the homeless people asking for spare change on the sidewalks. When I finally made it to Europe, Central America, and Africa, I began to notice issues that I had not previously been confronted with. Now I was becoming aware of not only issues of hunger and homelessness, but also of a need for clean drinking water, a lack of available hygiene products for women, or a lack of rights for indigenous populations. It did not take long for me to shift my focus from the field of diplomacy to the nonprofit world.

My Aunt Hope taught me that other cultures mattered, and without realizing it, that other people mattered. Now, whenever I travel, the first thing I notice is the people. I notice their joys and needs and routines. Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery to gain a fresh perspective. Without my love for travel, which I know I inherited from her, I may not have been moved to pursue my now fulfilling career path.

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Jennifer and Hope in Paris

I have learned two important lessons from Aunt Hope: First, that I have the power to decide what my life will look like, even in the face of adversity. And, second, that there is more to the world than just me, myself, and I.

Embracing Cliché

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Samantha Castagna, Jersey Cares Corporate Service Manager

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Samantha Castagna, Jersey Cares Corporate Service Manager.

For Women’s History Month, a handful of women who have inspired me popped into my head, including Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie, and Henrietta Lacks. But the more I thought about them and the deeper I dug into the reasons they inspired me, I realized that my true inspiration is my mom.

Yes, it is a cliché and a stereotype, but she has been my constant – providing me with my roots (my foundation as a person) and wings (the curiosity and motivation to move forward), that without, I would not have even learned of these women who helped make great strides in science.

I won’t get into details of her childhood in poverty, or how she went a night or two without eating to provide for me as a child. But I will tell you that she read to me constantly and never denied me a book because she felt education was so important. She sacrificed time and money for my love of music and (marching) band, curiosity about the world, and the pursuit of higher education. She pushed me to follow my aspirations – even when I wanted to make the “big money” and work in pharmaceuticals only to change my mind completely and become an AmeriCorps member. I will tell you that whatever moments she has been met with an obstacle, stumbled, or second guessed herself, she has rose to the occasion with humility, grace, and civility. And in spite of the financial, physical, and emotional toll of raising a child, she has not faltered in her own pursuit of a rewarding and prosperous life.sam mom

When it really comes down to it, no matter what else I aspire to do, my real goal is to embody those qualities within my mother that has made her such an inspiration to me. As underappreciated women of science, I’m sure Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie, and Henrietta Lacks (and her family) could get behind that.

Change Is Constant


Michelle R. Dee, Jersey Cares Senior Director of External Affairs

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Michelle Dee, Senior Director of External Affairs at Jersey Cares.

Change is a constant.  Over the past two years I have experienced quite a bit of it.  A West Coast girl, relocating to New Jersey provides ample opportunity for reflection.  Add to that a complete career transition and the loss of the ability to wear flip flops 365 days a year, and you can see the obvious case for introspection.  On top of that, Women’s History Month got under my skin this year.  I don’t know if it because of the transitions I am experiencing or maybe the fact that I am, undeniably, getting older.  I have spent a lot lately focusing on the women who have gotten me here.  There have been so many women that have inspired me and whose shoulders I have stood on, or whom have reached back and pulled me up with them.  The women who have helped me get here, whose names I know, are too many to list, let alone the ones who blazed the trails I don’t even know about.  Each person is a blog entry in their own rite.

Someone told me recently though, that the more time you spent looking back the harder it was to move forward.  So, as I honor the past, I have been focusing on living in the moment and looking to the future.  I think often about the world we are leaving our children.  I contemplate the legacy we am creating for our boys and the things we have given and taught them.  At work I find it is almost a mandate that we look forward.  In non-profit, as we acknowledge the forces that got us to where we are, usually the more important focus is how we are going to change going forward.  I have been with Jersey Cares for one year now.  It seems like a perfect fit for this time in my life.  I have always loved a good challenge, so jumping into the non-profit world with both feet seemed logical.  I thought I had something to give.  What I couldn’t truly comprehend was how much I would receive.

Every single day I have the honor of working with the future.  I help lead a team that often reminds me of kids.  As I sit and type this, I can hear them laughing from their desks and I can differentiate the subtleties of their laughter.  I can predict who will give who a hard time for what.  I can also tell you that each day every one of them is changing the world  in their own way.  They aren’t all women, but they make the things they touch better with the things they do every day.  They are creating incremental changes that make a difference.  They have passion and energy and enthusiasm and want to make the world a better place…for everyone.  In their enthusiasm, I have found my passion.

I can’t help but honor the past.  At the same time, change is constant.  This amazing team I have the honor of leading has let me know that it is time to let go of the hands that pulled me up and instead, reach back and pull others up with me.  It is time to let others stand on my shoulders.  This team of amazing people that I work with has changed my story.  They have helped change my history. I can think of no better way to honor those that I owe a debt of gratitude than by continuing their legacy.

This One is for My Abuela

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Vanessa Martinez, Jersey Cares Service Events Coordinator

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Vanessa Martinez, Jersey Cares Service Events Coordinator.

When I was nine years old, I read a quote painted onto a canvas in a museum that said: “I used to cry when I had no shoes, until I saw a boy who had no feet.”  It was said to have been an old El Salvadoran proverb, commonly used to state the general truth that no matter how grave our circumstances seem, it could always be worse.  Or at least that’s what my grandmother told me.

I understood it, but I didn’t.  It perplexed me because I couldn’t possibly picture a child with no shoes, nonetheless, without feet.  I further probed my grandmother to explain this.  After all, she was an El Salvadoran; she should know what to say.  Instead, she said nothing and smiled, which is normal from my grandmother who at times, had trouble understanding my random spurts of existentialism.

The summer I turned ten, I flew to San Miguel, El Salvador with my grandmother.  She packed two suitcases full of clothes and shoes she had purchased, which I assumed were for my cousins back in San Miguel.  Up arrival, I witnessed firsthand the true significance of the proverb.  I saw children, not much older than I was, begging on street corners.  I saw them stopped in front of cars at stop lights cleaning windshields for a nickel.  I saw them selling candy on open roads, many of them with no shoes.  Some with no feet.  This saddened me.  I felt incredibly guilty and helpless.


Abuela Agueda Martinez

My grandmother notices all of this and after some time, she began to open her suitcases full of clothes.  She called out to neighborhood kids and distributed the items from her bags.  The merchandise I assumed was for my cousins was actually for the children in the neighborhood.  That day many children received shoes and clothes.  They beamed at her with wide-eyed smiles, some of them even cried.

It was then that I realized how big my grandmother’s heart is and haw far her love extends.  She instilled in my the value of giving back even when you know you will get nothing in return.  She has taught me so much about appreciating the beauty in all of our circumstances, no matter how grave.  So many lives have been touched by my grandmother’s selfless acts of kindness.  When I think about the kind of woman I want to be, it’s a no-brainer.  This one is for my abuela.

Be A Shero

By Siara Clemente, Jersey Cares Program Manager, ReadyCorps AmeriCorps Member




  1. a woman, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.



Siara Clemente, Jersey Cares Program Coordinator, ReadyCorps AmeriCorps Member

To be a shero, one does not need to save the world, but rather, simply make a difference. Here at Jersey Cares, it is our goal to enable average individuals to conduct heroic gestures. These gestures may include sorting items at a foodbank or mentoring youth. The fact is, as long as a difference is made in someone’s life, and an impact is left, the mission has been accomplished. It’s important to remember that although a difference may not been made on the whole population, a difference was in fact made for at least one individual, and to that person, our sheroes appear to be wonder women.


This all being said, I’m excited to report a new opportunity available for sheroes, as well as their friends and family. Jersey Cares is working with the American Red Cross to help conduct the New Jersey Region Home Fire Campaign. Volunteers who attend are broken up into teams and provided a specific area to canvass, in which they provide residents with fire safety information and help the local fire departments install smoke alarms, should they be needed. These events will be occurring all over the state of New Jersey, and are open to anyone who would like to raise awareness, as fires are the most common natural disaster.

I was fortunate enough to attend my first fire safety canvassing event in Lambertville, New Jersey, located in Hunterdon County. I was placed on a team of four, and my team alone reached about 137 homes. As a whole, volunteers canvassed a total of 765 homes, and had approximately 86 alarms installed by the local fire department.

It’s important to know that not every family has the income to have smoke alarms installed on their own, and it’s even more important to be aware that more than half of parents do not have a designated meeting place in case of disaster. Families need to prepare now, for what may or may not occur in the future. This is a call to all parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, families, and friends; be a shero, be a hero. Learn what you need to know, and share it with others. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Volunteer.

For more information regarding the Red Cross Fire Safety Campaign, as well as dates and times of events, please contact Siara Clemente, the Ready Corps Program Coordinator.

Red Cross Fire Safety Volunteer Event Registration


A Sheroes Story


Siara Clemente, Jersey Cares Program Coordinator, ReadyCorps AmeriCorps Member

This month at Jersey Cares we are celebrating Women’s History Month by inviting some of our friends to share their thoughts and experiences on the women who have inspired them.  Today we feature a piece by Siara Clemente, Jersey Cares Program Coordinator, ReadyCorps AmeriCorps Member. 

In honor of Women’s History Month and all sheroism, I have recently reached out to a former college professor of mine, the now retired, Det. Sgt. Toni Latario. While I was completing my B.A. in Criminal Justice, I was lucky enough to have Toni as my Criminology professor. Although a 6:30pm to 9:45pm, college night class can seem rather tedious, having Toni share her real life experiences with us really inspired me, and fueled my passion of helping others that much more. This is why I want to share her story.

Toni began her career in law enforcement in the early 1990s as a patrol officer for Plainfield Police Department, although she had aspirations of becoming a FBI Agent. In fact, in 1991 she passed the FBI entrance exam, right as they underwent a hiring freeze. While Toni was waiting for the hiring freeze to be over, she took the Police Officer Civil Service tests and chose Plainfield PD. Having grown up with a sense of pride in her city, she chose to serve her community as an officer. The goal was to gain experience as a patrol officer, and ultimately give the FBI reason to admire her for her tenacity to work in a rugged town. Little did she know, two years later to the day, she would be accepting a job with the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office, right before receiving a call from the FBI New York Field Office inquiring if she was still interested. It was at that moment that she made the best possible decision for her career, and opted out of the FBI.

After gaining two years of patrol experience, Toni left Plainfield PD to begin her career with the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office. Toni’s first assignment was in undercover narcotics, and less than a year later she was assigned to the Special Victim’s Unit, where she remained for over 15 years. Throughout Toni’s career with Warren County, she worked in every unit, including Major Crimes, Special Victims Unit, Domestic Violence, and Juvenile and Community Policing Units. Prior to retiring, Toni was the supervising detective of the Domestic Violence, Juvenile and Community Policing Units; the Human Trafficking Liaison for Warren County; and served as the Bias Crime Officer for Warren County. Toni assigned cases to detectives and still conducted investigations on her own in addition to training and supervising office detectives and college interns. Toni also represented the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office for six years when she worked as a facilitator for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Advanced Investigation and Prosecution of Domestic Violence Cases. Trainings were held twice a year across New Jersey, and these trainings allowed Toni to build some of her most cherished relationships with others, especially law enforcement agencies, should she have ever needed their assistance.

When asked about how it feels to now be retired, Toni explained that at first she felt like a fish out of water, but now she’s actually busier than before. Not only is she a professor at two colleges, but she is also the Vice President of an organization known as the New Jersey Women in Law Enforcement (NJWLE). However, Toni has additional plans for her retirement. She’s interested in being a security guard, or perhaps even becoming a private investigator.

It’s important for people to know that Toni didn’t come from the ideal family background. When she was in high school her parents got divorced, and she actually dropped out after her school shut down when she was a junior. At that point, it made the most sense for Toni to work and help her mother support her and her two younger siblings. Toni did obtain her GED while working, but unfortunately her family lost their home and they were homeless for a while, at least until other family members gave them a helping hand. Toni does admit that there was a certain amount of shame growing up in such difficult circumstances, however, she is aware that those experiences have made her into the astounding officer that she was, as well as the inspiring woman that she is today.

After all these years, Toni still carries what she’s learned at the Police Academy with her. Her training taught her to over prepare and never allow mediocrity, but only excellence. Early on in Toni’s career, random inspections would take place in their patrol cars to see if they had their extra kits which consisted of additional supplies and clothes in case of a disaster; to this day Toni is proud to say she still keeps a kit in her personal vehicle. Being an officer and training future officers has also shown Toni how aware or unaware local agencies may be of the special needs and disabled population in their communities. Toni made it a point to say that everyone should be aware of the communities they reside in and their neighbors, as communities thrive when they are closely knit. It’s also a great idea to inform first responders of any special needs or disabled people in your home; you can register all those needed through your local 911 center. Communication is key when working with your neighbors and first responders regarding emergency preparedness.

Retired Det. Sgt. Toni Lattario is the epitome of a shero, and I am honored that she allowed me to share her story. May she inspire you to be the change, as she is the change she hoped to see in the world. May she remind you that your past does not determine your future. May she be an idol for those in need of a shero, or for those who hope to become a shero, as sheroes come in all shapes, sizes, and professions. To sheroes!

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“The greatest feeling for me is knowing that I have made a difference in someone’s life.” – Det. Sgt. Toni Lattario