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Every year, we invite 12 women to join us for an intimate dinner and conversation. This year’s roundtable was different than the others, though. This year, our participants truly let their guard down. They were brutally honest, sharing personal stories that were sometimes sad and shocking, but always powerful and meaningful. In fact, we aren’t sharing some of the stories told that night out of respect for our guests’ privacy. But once again, the women’s roundtable showed us how magic can happen when you bring together South Jersey women and ask them to talk about things that matter. It’s a phenomenal night.

Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum Temple Har Zion
Joanne Connor President’s Chief of Staff, Rowan University
Tonya Coston N.J. Deputy Asst. Commissioner, Div. of Early Education
Elaine Damm CEO, ACCU Staffing Services
Sharon Hammel Chief Retail Officer, Republic Bank
Faleeha Hassan Poet
Derry Holland CEO, OAKS Integrated Care
Lanette Keeton CEO, Serenity Home Healthcare & Nursing
Katrina McCombs Superintendent of Schools, Camden City
N.J. Senator Nilsa Cruz Perez
Jean Stanfield, Burlington County Sheriff
Loretta Winters CEO, Gloucester County NAACP

On a moment that changed their lives…

When I was a committeewoman, I was walking in North Camden, and this boy comes running to me, because they were shooting at him. We were there too, so we could have been killed. He’s running toward me, and he collapsed at my feet. When I reached to see if he had a pulse, he had collapsed and died. That was the moment I said I’m going to continue to fight for this city. That’s how I got involved in politics, because I witnessed someone dying at my feet.
Nilsa Cruz-Perez

I went on a volu-tourism trip when I was in rabbinical school. I saw families that didn’t have anything. The playground had stairs to climb up to the slide but no sliding board. They had what I would consider nothing, but the children had such joy. They were friendly and happy; their lives were great. So I was like, “Wow, this is what it’s about. If I can smile every day, then I’m good.”
Tiferet Berenbaum 

I had an internship at the prosecutor’s office in Burlington County when I was a law student. I thought I wanted to go into either civil practice or be a public defender. But when I was there, I learned the prosecutor’s job is to do justice. Before that, I always thought they were the bad guys. I had a lot of plans when I started that internship, but sometimes life has other plans for you.
Jean Stanfield

I backpacked through Europe after college and went to Auschwitz. That was indeed a life-changing experience. It was so traumatic, I hardly spoke for probably about a month – literally. To be in that space, to stand in the gas chamber and walk through those barracks, it changes who you are as a person forever. You take away a life lesson.
Joanne Connor

On troubled marriages…

In my first marriage, my husband was abusive, possessive and jealous. It was a horrible life. It wouldn’t be anything for me to have a black eye two or three times a year. One night he put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger, but it didn’t go off. Around that same time, when our daughter was 10 years old, he beat her up. I said that was it, I’m leaving. As time went on, I was very confused on who I was and what my purpose in life was. But I believe I went through this so I can tell my story and help other women who are voiceless and don’t know what to do. You get into a situation and you think you have to stay there because you need that person, or you need them to pay the bills, and they take advantage of that power over you.
Loretta Winters

When I left my marriage, I had two young children. I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t know where I was going. But I had to leave. I moved in with my parents and slept on the floor in the room I was raised in while my children slept in the twin bed. We stayed until I saved money to move out. Today, I’m able to take care of my own children, help my father, and I’ve advanced in my career. There were days I never thought I would get to the other side. But here I am.
Tonya Coston 

When you have a husband hitting you and telling you you’re worthless, your faith gets tested. I said, “Where’s God here?” But you know what, my faith is what left me standing today.
Nilsa Cruz-Perez

On their mothers…

My mother had me spend time with one of my great aunts, who was an FBI agent. She traveled the world, she was very independent, she owned her own house. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, so she wanted me to see what other women did. She wanted me to have choices, so I could make whatever choice I wanted.
Tonya Coston 

I remember my mom’s struggle being a single mom. We went through a lot. We moved around, got evicted, stayed with relatives. I don’t know how she mustered up the strength to

keep coming back and keep coming back, just to show us that no matter what, you can always strive for something better. That’s exactly what she did.
Katrina McCombs 

I’m one of nine children, and my mother was 19 when she was married. She was home every day until my youngest sister went to elementary school, then she started Burlington County College. She got her Bachelor’s degree the night before I married and then went on to get her Master’s and was a licensed clinical social worker until she retired. All of us went on for secondary and post-graduate degrees. For her, it was all about freedom. To be able to get out of the house was the best thing that could happen, right? She always had that ambition, but there’s only so much you can do when you have nine kids running around.
Derry Holland

On sacrifices along the way…

My mother was there for everything, because she was a stay-at-home mom. I am already thinking I haven’t shown up enough for my daughter, who is only 2. It’s just the beginning, but I’m already sad because I think about all the things I’m going to have to miss that my mother never missed.
Tiferet Berenbaum 

I sacrificed a lot of family time. But I would do it again, because I’ve paved the way for my daughter. She doesn’t have to go through a lot of the same things I’ve gone through. But she does have to work hard. I make sure she does.
Lanette Keeton

When I can’t make events for my children, I make sure they know I enjoy my work, and there is give and take. I let them know I might not be there for this event, but I’ll take a day off for that one.
Joanne Connor

I have a lot of regrets about when my son was growing up, because I was on the phone constantly. But knowing down the road this would be my business, it becomes a part of you. I have memories of him wanting my attention and me being like, “Honey, I’m on the phone with a customer. Give me five minutes.” Then an hour later, I’m still on the phone. My son is 25 now, and for a period of time, he worked in the business, so it brought that balance back, because we had lunch every day. He’s an amazing young man, so I think today he would say, “Mom, it was worth it.”
Elaine Damm

On feminism…

I don’t consider myself a feminist. When I think of a feminist, I think of this aggressive woman who is anti-men. But I also realize that my ability to say, “Oh, I’m not a feminist” is because feminists fought fights that now I don’t have to fight. I appreciate their struggles and that they felt like they had to fight, and they did. But, thank God, I haven’t had to fight.
Tiferet Berenbaum 

Feminism doesn’t mean you’re giving up your femininity. It just means you want equal pay for equal work. You want opportunity.
Loretta Winters

Feminism doesn’t have to be that outward advocacy where you’re standing on a podium and screaming for women’s rights, but it can be calling people out when something happens in a meeting or giving a voice to women who do not feel they have a voice. All of that is really important.
Joanne Connor

In 1995, I was the only Hispanic female legislator in the whole state of New Jersey. Am I’m a feminist because I didn’t want to be the token at the table anymore? Am I a feminist because I wanted to have more diversity? Am I a feminist because I wrote recommendations every time a woman asked? And because I promoted women – am I a feminist? I think I am. Yeah.
Nilsa Cruz-Perez

Women are really smart, we make great decisions, we’re great leaders, and we need opportunity. Many people have fought long and hard for us to get to this point, where we have a voice. In other parts of the world, women are still fighting for that, and some are dying.
Derry Holland

On negative social media…

Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s ok. Others may not be able to see what you’re driving toward. It’s helpful for me to develop a tough skin and stay focused. Even though we may have different perspectives, that’s okay, what can we do together that is best for the students of Camden?
Katrina McCombs 

Social media is the reason I will not run for mayor. I wanted to run for mayor of my township, but I won’t be dragged through social media like that.
Lanette Keeton

People say stuff that is not true when they don’t even know me. Come and meet me. At least give me an opportunity to explain my position and why we’re doing what we’re doing. After that, you’re entitled to your opinion. But when we meet, I might learn something that you bring to the table that will make things better.
Nilsa Cruz Perez

On working with men…

I remember the first time I joined a board years ago, and I was the only woman. One of the members had died, so they decided we would go outside and take a shot [of alcohol] in his honor. And of course, I’m thinking, “It’s cold, it’s December, I don’t want to do this.” But I felt obligated. I felt if I didn’t go, they would think, “See, that’s the problem with women. They’re not team players.”
Tonya Coston 

I just had a CEO tell me I have an air about me when I walk into a room. I’m all business. I’m no joke. And they have a lot of respect for that. I was like, “Really?” But I guess I am like that. I want to get in there, get the meeting done. I want to get things rolling. And I want to make money from it.
Lanette Keeton

Back in 1995, I needed to be ready, because I was in meetings with all men. But now when I sit at that table, I feel that the ones who feel nervous are the guys. Because, for example, in the Latina Congress, there are 10 women, one man. So now he’s the token.
Nilsa Cruz Perez

I’ve probably worked more with men than women, and I’ve always felt respected. I don’t think I’ve ever been restricted or limited. I’ve never felt denied opportunity. I’ve always enjoyed working with unique individuals. It’s a pleasure to work with different people.
Sharon Hammel

It depends on the individual. I have the best boss I’ve ever had. He understands when I have family obligations. He is an advocate for all forms of feminism, truly. But men who don’t get it, never will. And that makes our jobs harder, because we have to work smarter to get around them, but we will.
Joanne Connor

When I first got onto the cabinet, I was the only woman. The first time another woman came on, I remember thinking, “Oh crap, they’re not going to let more than one of us stay here.” There’s that scary moment, and then you have to check yourself and say, “Wait a minute. I have an obligation to help that person have a seat at the table so she also has a voice.”
Nilsa Cruz Perez

On the best time of their lives…

When you’re younger, you don’t have stress, you don’t have pressures, you don’t have deadlines. You imagine your life later, and life has no boundaries. Then you become an adult, and you’re confronted with challenges and walls and all kind of things that stop you from your vision.
Loretta Winters

I cherish where I am today, the choices I’ve made and where my life has taken me. You appreciate growing up, your parents, your influences and understand how they’ve shaped you, but I love being where I am now.
Sharon Hammel

When I think about where I’m going to be in 10 years professionally, I honestly don’t know. To me, that’s very exciting. That makes this the best time of my life.
Joanne Connor

When I was much younger, we lived in Missouri and my family would go fishing for a week. We would cook the fish that night. It was the best, incredible quality time with my family. I would do anything to have all that back.
Elaine Damm


Poet Faleela Hassan shared with us some deeply personal experiences.

I remember when the war between Iraq and Iran started, our principal gathered us together and said our government decided to close all the schools because we were at war, and then we would open after 10 days because they believed the war would be over. But the war took eight years. After that, we faced another war with Kuwait. There were many horrible situations. I saw by myself, with my eyes, many dead bodies eaten by dogs. I saw so many.

I found my name on two different lists, death lists, because I was writing articles and poetry about justice. I escaped from my country because they tried to kill my kids. I bring my kids from Iraq to Turkey to here.

Marianne: So when you see people here who get upset over different things, what do you think?

Faleela: Those things are nothing, absolutely nothing. We were looking for shelter to live. We had no water, no electricity, no food, no nothing. 

Marianne: So how are you happy and smiling?

Faleela: Because I have faith, and I have hope for my kids to be better. When I came here, I came with zero English. I taught myself by watching movies and cartoons. I chose comedy shows because I needed to laugh. 

Some people say, “You are here. You are in a safe place.” But it’s not easy to be through all these horrible wars and just delete everything to become a new person. My kids don’t know anything, and that’s a good thing. I never mention anything bad to them because I want them to live a healthy life. But if I have a happy moment, then a bad memory will come and take over. It makes me feel like a very strong woman, but also, I can’t enjoy my life.


MENU:

The Capital Grille

Starter Choice
Porcini Mushroom Bisque
Field Greens

Entrée Choice
Filet Mignon 8oz
Seared Citrus Glazed Salmon
Jumbo Shrimp and Roasted Wild Mushroom Risotto
Grilled Chicken with Asparagus, Shiitakes and Parsnip Puree

Dessert Choice
Crème Brulee
Seasonal Berries
Chocolate Espresso Cake

 

Photos by David Michael Howarth

May 2019
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