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.

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



AmeriCorps Navigator’s Log – Part IV

In honor of AmeriCorps Week, today we continue a multi-part series entitled “The Navigator’s Log,” created by LaRhonda Boone, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving with Jersey Cares’ ServiceWorks program in Newark, NJ. ServiceWorks helps youth ages 16-24 to develop workplace skills through specialized training and to gain leadership experience by designing and implementing community service projects. You can learn more about Service Works here.

Every volunteer’s story is unique, and while LaRhonda’s story, which is still being written, is her own, she provides us with insight into what it is, can be – and at times hopefully won’t often be – to be a volunteer.


LaRhonda Boone, AmeriCorps VISTA

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By:  LaRhonda Boone, AmeriCorps VISTA

With scholars finally entering our realm, I’ve seen one or two shooting stars but they were of a different sort. They were stars that shoot, not across the sky, but with guns as in harm & danger. Their target, another scholar, survived though he was grazed and all of this after only a day or two of meeting. Shooting stars, as you know, aren’t really stars at all but are meteors that flash & burn away, and as expected they were removed from the program before the program really began. No staff, crew member or other scholars were hurt as the shooting occurred off-site, but when a burning meteor crashes to our world, our space, we are all impacted. And yet that was one kind of light – a fiery, angry, one.

Since then, as Scholars have gone through our host site’s Mental Toughness process (one that assesses preparation & readiness and in so doing weeds out a few) I’ve seen pockets of brilliance. I do not mean intelligence, street-smarts or even common sense. Through Mental Toughness and our recent ServiceWorks info session, I’ve seen charred embers begin to brightly glow. While there is hesitation (a fight even –by some Scholars) to keep their light hidden for fear of ridicule, vulnerability and disappointment, it is hard when nothing but love, support, encouragement and the idea of possibilities form meteors of their own to chip away at a Scholar’s resolve.   The embers will glow until they catch and then there will be fire. Not an angry one, but one of determination. And that is another light – a radiantly beautiful one.



Who I Am

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 Alexis Slade, External Affairs Coordinator at Jersey Cares. 

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Alexis Slade, Jersey Cares External Affairs Coordinator

My thoughts, my ambitions, my quirks, – who I am, is directly connected to the many intelligent, creative, and powerful women that have come and gone during the last 31 years of my life. I am grateful for the fact that I have had the opportunity to learn from so many diverse women. In this moment, I want to honor a woman that has had a great impact on my life by challenging me to wholly embrace who I am.

Maya Angelou.

As an artist, so much of my struggle comes from being able to give myself permission to be authentic and true to who I am. I am often told that I am too wild, too colorful, too expressive, simply – too much. Maya’s words give me courage to be myself, to speak my mind with love, to be ME. She reminds me that my differences are what make me beautiful and that I need to be unapologetically true to myself. She challenges me to see beyond the “norm”, to step in to my biggest self, and to embrace every inch of what makes me a woman. Caged Bird, paints a picture of what it feels like to be trapped within the boundaries of fear. All too often the walls of those cages have been built by my own hands. I am afraid to be myself and of being “too much” of something once again. But the caged bird sings of freedom and freedom is what I deserve and long for.

For me, that inner freedom comes and goes. It changes with my surroundings and the people in my life. I often forget that I have wings and tuck away the things that bring me the most joy. I don’t always remember to embrace my body or dance as wildly through the world as much as I want to. But deep down, I know my worth and love who I am. Of course I never knew Maya personally, but her words resonate within my soul and I carry her with me for the moments that I need to be reminded to be ME. Phenomenally.

Maya Angelou

8th January 1993: Headshot portrait of African-American author Maya Angelou wearing black sweater with a pearl necklace, smiling and holding flowers in one hand. (Photo by Stephen Matteson Jr/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

Sheroes in Volunteerism

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 Lucy Doyle, Programs Manager at Jersey Cares. 


Lucy Doyle, Jersey Cares Programs Manager

At 51% of the United States’ population and with nearly 30% of that population volunteering,[1] women easily make up the majority of volunteers in the country. It felt only right, then, to give our female volunteers the spotlight today of all days, on International Women’s Day.

Why do women volunteer in such great numbers? Theories about the giving nature of women, the extracurriculars that come with motherhood, and the gender pay gap all come up in conversation. While we may not know for sure what it is that brings the ladies to the yard (to do some planting and bench building for schools and shelters all over New Jersey!), we can say for sure that the efforts of our girls and women across the state are very real, and very impressive. Consider for a moment that 60% of the working poor in the United States is made up of women, and the average woman will make $0.64 to her white male colleagues’ $1.00 (and the numbers only get worse for women of color)[2]—these numbers paint a dismal picture for the state of women at work. It’s a true testament to our wills that we’re able to give so much of ourselves to improving the lives of those around us as unpaid workers, even when we are faced by some insurmountable odds. On a given day, women may be faced with sexism in myriad forms (from shaming and street harassment to being underrepresented in positions of power and being bombarded by impossible beauty standards), and yet, we don’t just survive but we thrive through the lives we reach and the mentorship we provide the next generation. What better motivator is there to create change, when you see the need for change each and every day.


Some of the role models in civic engagement are the unsung female (s)heroes of the abolition movement, the suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the LGBT rights movement—that’s really a lot of moving!


Volunteerism and activism go hand in hand, and I am proud of the feminist foremothers that came before us—and hopefully the feminist daughters that come after. It’s no coincidence the First Lady of the United States has historically been a role filled by women who take on volunteerism and the public good.


Michelle Obama embraces volunteerism, making nutrition accessible for kids across the country, promoting girls’ education, and exemplifying grace under pressure. But it doesn’t take a seat in the White House to make real change every day, and the young girls and women who volunteer every day know it.


Around the office at Jersey Cares, it isn’t unusual for a female staffer to be seen unpacking and repacking the van full of heavy duty, industrial supplies for a project, then to be caught brushing the dirt off to command an audience of corporate volunteers. Breaking a sweat isn’t gendered, and we’re happy to get the work done. We wear multiple hats, and defying gender stereotypes that many of our own mothers had to face growing up is part of the everyday experience at Jersey Cares.


Women’s work is never done, and for the sake of the state, that adds up to a lot of volunteer hours. That’s a lot of wo-man power!




Jersey Cares Day: Team Spotlight on Project Save Our Shore


The Project Save Our Shore crew at a Jersey Cares Coat Drive sorting project.

When given the task of their Senior Service Learning Project, four Colts Neck High School students went above and beyond by creating ‘Project Save Our Shore’. Their mission in continuing Hurricane Sandy relief efforts through volunteerism and fundraising has proven very successful. In conjunction with Jersey Cares, they’ve repaired schools that were flooded and damaged due to the storm, planted dune grass which helps stabilize beach dunes against future storms, and cleared debris and garbage off beaches that were a mess after Sandy.

Up next on their agenda: Jersey Cares Day! Because Jersey Cares Day features many Sandy-related projects along the Jersey Shore, the Colts Neck foursome are a perfect fit for one of the many teams signed up to rebuild communities along the coastline. Project Save Our Shore’s revitalization and fundraising efforts encompass exactly what Jersey Cares Day is all about: “A Brand New Jersey”. Although it’s been roughly a year and half since Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, Project Save Our Shore understands that the work to revitalize the state is far from over, and they need your help!  If you’d like to join their aide in rebuilding New Jersey on May 3rd for Jersey Cares Day, you can visit our website,, to sign up!




Jersey Cares Staff Gives Back for National Volunteer Week


As the icy cold of winter fades behind us, we look forward to a spring of warmth and beauty. The team who manages the Volunteer Opportunity Calendar joined in the fun of National Volunteer Week by giving back on one of our outdoor projects, Mobile Meals in Elizabeth. They sorted food and distributed to residents of the local Elizabeth community. Everyone was in high spirits with the cool weather and not a drop of rain to put a damper on the day. They served more than 70 people over the course of the four hour project and distributed much needed necessities such as milk, bread, and vegetables.

Kat Clayton, Program Coordinator and Americorps Member, said, “We had the opportunity to get to know Michelle Meacham, the energized Project Coordinator for Mobile Meals in Elizabeth, as well as other calendar projects. Michelle is one of those volunteers whose leadership skills make our programs possible and it was such a pleasure to see her in action!”

During National Volunteer Week, there are 61 projects scheduled to mobilize 328 volunteers who are ready to be the change in the Volunteer Opportunity Calendar Program. There are also an additional 10 projects engaging 1,150 volunteers in the Corporate Service Program,  mobilizing teams of employees giving back together.