Denise Beckles – International Women’s Day

Denise Beckles

Director, Vocational Services

The Arc Middlesex County

denise becklesWhat inspired you to get involved?

The People. They are some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. I am a Diversity Management Leader and an advocate for growth and development. I’m especially drawn to the under-served people. My heart is to make a difference in their lives. In my diversity leadership work—I’ve been especially moved by the tenacity, the warmth, openness, struggles and needs of those with disabilities and those who have health disparities. This demographic is the most underserved in our nation; yet they are resilient despite disparities. What I have discovered is that all people usually want the same things out of life, love, purpose, resources and security.

I have the privilege to use my corporate skillset, my compassion for the underserved and my love for teaching everyday as I provide leadership for the Vocational Program of the Arc Middlesex County

What keeps you motivated?

The People.  The Individuals who need support and have an expressed desire to learn vital life, community, safety, vocational, social skills, to live fuller lives. My Staff—who have a heart to serve those in need and advocate for their best interests to be achieved. My Leadership-who have a vision and mission to help Individuals achieve success and become their best self. Results motivate me; when I see tangible results, improvement in a task or happiness as a result of fulfillment. I believe to teach is to touch a life forever. My goal is to touch a life; one person at a time.

What are your hopes for the future of the organization?Arc-logo

My greatest desire is for the Arc Middlesex County to become the obvious choice when families and loved ones are seeking services, whether day programming/vocational, residential, employment support and family support. We are here to serve.



Lisa D. Banks – International Women’s Day

Lisa D. Banks

Preschool Program Director

Mercer Street Friends

What inspired you to get involved?

lisa banksI have been inspired to work with young children from a very young age, I always wanted to be a teacher.  I was raised by my grandparents, being the oldest I was responsible for caring for my siblings at a very young age making sure they were clean, neat and loved, even teaching my baby brother to read.  I care about the young children in our care making sure they are safe and learning in a positive, nurturing environment where children can learn and have fun as they grow, I have an excellent staff, some of the greatest Preschool Teachers around and I could not do my job without them.

What keeps you motivated?

What keeps me motivated is watching the children grow, it’s an unexplained joy that I get watching the children and parents enter our doors, not sure of what to expect, then seeing them happy and comfortable leaving their children in our care and the children not wanting to leave.  It is beautiful to see the children transition from Preschool to Kindergarten and watching them learn throughout the year.


What is your hope for the future of your program/organization?

logoMy hope for our program and organization is that we continue to make a positive difference in the lives of the children we teach.  It is a blessing when families keep coming back for the wonderful services that we offer.  Our greatest testimonies come by “word of mouth.”


Jennifer Amaya – International Women’s Day

Jennifer Amaya

Director of Outreach and Prevention

Visions and Pathways

What inspired you to get involved?logo-white

I’ve had a passion for working with at risk youth vp-team-jennifer-amayasince I was younger. I always have and always will enjoy the grass roots interaction that I have with these youth. They are our future and we should all be working to lift them up to reach their potential.

What keeps you motivated?

I am motivated by every youth that takes the steps to make their situation better. Whether it is just making the call to us for food, hygiene or food, reaching out for housing, asking for employment assistance or getting back into school. These are big steps for the youth we work with and I am motivated by their courage, perseverance and willingness to do better, be better.

What is your hope for the future of your program/organization?

mkwlaMxZ_400x400My hope for Visions and Pathways is that we will continue to help those youth in need and be the place they call for someone to turn to. I would hope that more and more people would use us as a preventative resource, to reduce the severity that situations can turn into and limit the amount of trauma that can accompany these situations.

Marla Higginbotham – International Women’s Day

Marla Higginbotham

Executive Director

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Union County

Marla Higginbotham

What inspired you to get involved?

For the past 20 years, beginning with my senior thesis in college on alternative education choices for black inner- city students and my first job at the National Governor’s Association working with states to implement the National Education Goals, I have been steadfast in my commitment to the protection, safety, education and enhancement of young minds.  Currently, I am Executive Director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Union County, leading a team of outstanding individuals in serving and advocating for the most-vulnerable individuals in the county — children placed in foster care after being removed from their homes due to neglect, abuse or abandonment. casaCASA staff and volunteers truly make a difference in the lives of young, deserving individuals who often have limited sources of assistance and no other inspiration in their lives.

What keeps you motivated?

Results. This is my most-important motivator. Each month when I look at advocate reports submitted to the court I see how we directly impact the lives of foster children right here in Union County and feel especially motivated. Every month there is at least one special case that inspires me on a greater level. Over the holidays, it was 7-year-old IQ, who had been in foster care three years and was formally adopted by his older sister, a young woman in her early 20s just becoming an adult herself; nevertheless, she was unwaveringly committed to bringing her family back together. Real stories. Real inspiration.

What are your hopes for the future of the organization?

My hope for the future of the organization can be summed up in one word: growth. We must continue to grow the number of fragile children served. The initial cause for a child’s removal from home and placement in foster homes or residential facilities is traumatic enough; yet it is compounded when the child is most often placed with strangers in an unfamiliar environment, and this can last average 18 to 24 months. There are 560 Union County children in foster care right now and CASA of Union County currently serve 262. There’s still more work to be done. For many of these children, no matter how many times a placement changes, their CASA volunteer is the only constant in their life. Every day we continue to strive to reach our goal of providing a CASA volunteer for every Union County foster child. That is CASA of Union County’s future.


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.

Sharon Coppola1

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.  

audrey hepburn

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.

ugly sweater

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.

mrs. collins-1

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.

Auntie Hope2

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.

Auntie Hope1

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

SLC Head Shot1

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.