Mt. Olive Women Celebrated During Women’s History Month

By Cheryl Conway 

 

“I have big ideas; I’m going to be a doctor; I am fearless; I want to heal the sick;  I am going to make a difference; I want to tell stories; I have compassion; I love adventure; I can do anything  I want to do; I am a trail blazer; I want to discover new things; I want to create change: I believe in justice; I want to explore the universe; I want to fly; I want to do something no one else has ever done; I believe girls can do anything;  I want to change the world; I am going to make history”- History.com

 

Observed annually every March in the United States since 1987, Women’s History Month celebrates women’s contributions to history, culture and society.  While women have been doing amazing things since the beginning of time, their contributions over the years are oftentimes overlooked. 

International Women’s Day traces back to March 1911 when many countries around the world began celebrating the holiday with initiatives, demonstrations and customs. Since 1975, the United Nations has sponsored International Women’s Day.

Every year, the National Women’s History Alliance focuses on a different theme to recognize Women’s History Month.  The theme for 2024 celebrates “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.”   

“Mt. Olive Life” is celebrating the women who live in its borders. Like the women throughout the world, Mt. Olive women come in all shapes and sizes when it comes to their accomplishments and contributions both locally and afar. There really are so many local women to spotlight, much too many to fit on these pages. Some turned down the opportunity as they chose to stay in the shadows and not brag, but this clearly is far from the case. This is a platform to share all that the women have accomplished, both big and small, and that really is what March Women’s History is all about.     

Dr. Jennifer Argenziano, 43, of Flanders since 2008, also works in town as a dentist. She purchased her own office in 2021 when she was seven months pregnant with her eldest son, Gavin, who is now 11. A mother of two, she and her husband have a second son, Ethan, 9.

“Aside from being a wife and a mother, my greatest accomplishment has been providing comprehensive dental care to the families and residents of Mt. Olive,” says Argenziano. “And maybe also purchasing and building out an office space five years ago as my own general contractor.”

Looking toward her future goals, Argenziano plans “to continue to grow my patient centered practice along with raising civic minded children.”

When she is not working, Argenziano takes time out as a room mom for her boys’ classrooms and hospitality chair for their Cub Scout troop; and some “me time” with pilates and reading. 

“I believe the busier you are the more you can accomplish,” says Argenziano. “I rarely turn down an opportunity to volunteer or be a sponsor in the community. I want my boys to learn service to their community by example.”

 

A life-long resident of Flanders, Aimee Ashley Myers, 47, is co-owner and retail and social media manager for Ashley Farms in Flanders. She didn’t have to search far and wide when she was contemplating what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I grew up on the farm, started working when I was 13 and became manager right out of college,” shares Myers. “I have been partners with my dad and brother for many years now.”

A mother of two teenage boys, Myers is involved with the Flanders PTA, serving as president for two years and volunteering at her boys’ schools.  She is also “very involved” in some local agriculture boards.

She says her greatest accomplishments so far, “other than raising my family in the town that I love dearly,” has been “continuing the legacy my grandparents started on our family farm 75 years ago.  There is nothing I am more proud of than my family and our business.  The fact that we are now a fourth-generation business and that my kids also help out here and are able to grow up on a farm is all I could ask for.”

She plans “to continue to advocate for our children, help out where I can, and remind people of the importance of agriculture to our town, state, country and world.”

Outside of her work, Myers shares “I love to read, I love my dogs, we are a big Disney family and otherwise, I just like to spend time with my family.”

She offers some advice to her peers: “Just take the leap, be willing to help and learn.  Make connections with other women, we have so much to learn from each other.”

 

As a mother of six, Michele Hildebrant, 57 of Hackettstown had a full plate, but when her husband died, she had to step up to the plate and do that much more! 

A local resident for the past 31 years, Hildebrant is the owner of RH Farms in Hackettstown.

“Up until 2012, I was busy raising my six children; unfortunately, my husband passed away and I became a business owner!” she says. “I had to learn everything there was about owning a business and running a vegetable farm. Boy, there was a lot to learn. 

“My children were still relatively young, but they assured me they wanted to keep working the farm,” she continues. “We faced lots of obstacles from money woes to not knowing how to farm. But through our faith in God and hard work, we are still here today!”

She has four daughters and two sons, and three of them are married so far. She has two grandsons and two granddaughters on the way.

“Raising six great kids” has been her greatest accomplishment. “I want to be clear about this! They have done more to keep this farm going than I ever could! With out them there would be no farm. I’m in constant awe of them!”

As far as future goals, she plans to keep running RH FARMS.

“We recently started doing wedding florals and we are starting to grow more and more flowers,” she says. “We want to help our community in any way we can. They have supported us through thick and thin. We have the best community around!”

When she is not working, Hildebrant enjoys “gardening, antiques and of course having fun with my grandchildren.”

Her advice to other women is to “Find what you love to do. Stick with it. You’ll have good days and bad days. But when you look back the good will always outweigh the bad. Don’t be afraid of change. It’s good. Pray and have faith; you’re gonna make it!”

Councilwoman Mary Lalama, 62, of Budd Lake likes to mix things up and the more hats she wears, the more this woman accomplishes!

As a resident of Mt. Olive for the past 20 years, she spent 18 years in Flanders and now the last two in Budd Lake.  She raised three children, two step-children and currently babysits for her three grandchildren. 

Lalama co-owns with her husband, Mayor Joe Nicastro, not just one business but two businesses: My Life Publications, as a graphic artist, which publishes the Mt. Olive Life newspaper; and Hackettstown Bagels. 

When she is not working, Lalama has been volunteering for years. 

“When we first moved to Mt. Olive, I volunteered at my son’s schools as class parent, and later on when he was in high school I was an officer in the PTA for three years; I also helped with the MO Marching Band.”

She then took it upon herself to start two initiatives to help the community.

“I started a toy drive about 10 years ago which has now evolved into the “Sponsor A Child/Family Program for the Holidays.” I work in conjunction with the middle school guidance office and many residents in town getting gifts to children in Mt. Olive thus making their holidays special.”

Seven years ago, “I started and still do a free Thanksgiving dinner for residents who are less fortunate and those that will be alone on the holiday. This past year we delivered (with the help of many volunteers including the Flanders Fire & EMS squads) about 178 meals on Wednesday night and served about 45 meals on Thanksgiving.”

This is her first term elected to serve on the Mt. Olive Council “where I can do more outreach programs. In the future I would like to implement other programs to help our residents.”

One idea of Lalama’s is to form a Senior Citizen Connection Group.

“I come across so many seniors that live in town who are alone and have no one to talk to,” she describes. “They just want to talk to someone. I want to be able to have someone check in on them” and take time to talk and listen to them. “We can learn so much from our seniors.” 

Lalama takes time for herself by spending time with her children, grandchildren and unwinding in Cape May.

She follows her own advice: “Family is most important, but there is always time to be kind and give back even if it’s just a few hours or one day a year.”  

Jen Aquino, 52, of Hackettstown for the past 17 years, busies herself as a mom of her middle school-aged daughter, a volunteer and outside administrator for the Morris School District observing and evaluating teachers.  

For the past three years, she has been elected to serve on the Mt. Olive Board of Education and is a former member of the Recreation Advisory Committee.

“I’m proud to serve on the Mt. Olive Board of Education and enjoy working on personnel and curriculum/technology committees,” she says. 

Some of her key accomplishments while serving on the BOE include: Building strong relationships with parents, community members, and local organizations that foster a supportive educational environment and collaboration that benefit students; also, implementing initiatives that lead to improved academic outcomes, increased graduation rates and higher levels of student success.

“My future goal is to ensure we don’t get complacent as a top-notch school district,” says Aquino. “There is always room for improvement. It’s important to bring together people from different points of view to be effective in this district. The best districts pull together a tapestry of points of view to build a strong, inclusive district even if we don’t always agree.”

As busy as she has been as a volunteer and through her work, Aquino puts her role as a mom at the top. 

“My greatest accomplishments while living in Mt. Olive is having and raising my daughter,” says Aquino.

Outside of being a mom, Aquino says her interests are all things related to education. As a previous teacher and principal, she likes reading about educational trends and issues.

“My husband and I enjoy dining out,” she adds. “I love spending time with friends and am active in my church. I am also a huge fan of the three Fs: food, football (a lifelong Jets fan) and Formula One.”

She offers some advice to other women: 

“Educate Yourself: Continuously seek knowledge and skills related to your interests,” she says. “Take courses, attend workshops, and read relevant books and articles to stay informed and empowered.

“Take Initiative: Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you—seek them out,” she adds. “Whether it’s asking for a promotion at work, starting a community project, or volunteering for a cause, be proactive in pursuing your goals.

“Prioritize Self-Care: Taking care of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being is essential for long-term success and fulfillment,” she continues. “Make time for activities that recharge you, such as exercise, hobbies and spending time with loved ones. Be sure to keep up with well checks. YOU come first.

“Lead by Example: Be a role model for other women by demonstrating courage, integrity and compassion in your actions,” she says. “Inspire and empower others to pursue their goals and make a difference in the world.

“Celebrate Your Achievements: Acknowledge and celebrate your successes, no matter how small,” she concludes. “Recognize the progress you’ve made and the impact you’ve had and use it as motivation to continue striving for excellence.”

 

Kathy Murphy, 75, has lived in Budd Lake since 1986 with her husband Ken, and raised a son and daughter. 

In the early years, she was a substitute teacher in the Mt. Olive School District, became a member of  the Environmental Commission in 1989 and later became a grant coordinator for the town.  

“My many projects included identifying and pursuing properties for acquisition as open space, as well as projects such as sidewalks, lake dredging, lake issues, FEMA funds, fire and rescue building improvements, fire education trailer, etc.  From owning several hundred acres – lake area and pocket parks- we increased open space to several thousand acres.  I coordinated with the state and county and helped them acquire land as well, at no cost to the township.”

Murphy is currently the chair of the Environmental Commission,  vice-chair of the Open Space Committee,  vice president of the  Mt. Olive Twp. Historical Society, chair of the Morris County  Heritage Commission and serves on other special committees.

As a member of the Historical Society, Murphy was able to broaden her understanding of historic preservation and worked with others to acquire and preserve the old Baptist Church.  

“We also were able to convince the town and county to preserve the Seward House,” adds Murphy. “Along with Thea Dunkle, we continue to coordinate with administration on historic projects.  

These experiences led to my appointment to the Morris County Heritage Commission.  We retain and archive historic documents and records for the county, place historic markers, re-grant funds to local history groups and work to promote historic preservation and awareness.”

Her work introduced her to many people in town and together they achieved great things.

“My years working at the township included collaborating with many other employees on various projects,” says Murphy. “They were always professional and committed to doing a good job for the community.  People come and go, but the town has always benefitted from the hard work of local residents.  It’s their community too.  Our consultants and outside professionals at the county and state were always helpful as well. I loved my job. 

“Being involved in the community had been very rewarding,” continues Murphy. “I have made valued friendships, improved my awareness and knowledge on many issues, developed business skills, and contributed to the improvement of my community.  Although I have been retired for 11 years, I appreciate the continued support and communication with town officials on many projects.

Turkey Brook Park and the Seward House, Baptist Church preservation, and many open space projects that have protected our lake, water and woods are my most satisfying experiences.”

Her advice for women is to get involved. 

“I urge others to also be involved in the community,” she says. “Make friends, develop skills and make a difference.”

Delphine Venitucci, 43, has lived in Budd Lake for the past five years with her husband and their three kids aged 15, 12 and 10. 

Adapting to the United States after moving from France has been her greatest challenge and accomplishment so far.

“Our family arrived in Mt. Olive in 2018,” shares Venitucci. “We are French, and although my husband had been travelling a lot to the U.S. for work, I had never been there before we moved here. So obviously, getting the family settled in our new country was a huge challenge, especially seeing that our children did not speak English at all when we arrived. 
I am particularly grateful for the amazing school system which helped them adjust, and I am very happy that they are now fully bilingual.” 
Settling in and learning the English language and culture has not stopped her from starting her own company.  
“I created a brand of fashion accessories for wheelchairs, I-WHEEL,” she explains. “I sell globally, and I am currently fine-tuning an innovative product which will be patented.”

One of her goals is “to get more involved in the economic development of Mt. Olive.
I recently met the Economic Development Committee who has been very helpful and welcoming. I am going to meet the Chamber of Commerce in March. As my background is in Marketing and Business Strategy, I would love to help other entrepreneurs on their journey. We have international companies here in Mt. Olive, and it is important to realize we don’t have to be in the city to create a thriving global business.”

She has also found her place as a volunteer. With her daughter involved in the JROTC program at Mt. Olive High School, Venitucci is volunteering with the JROTC Booster Club.

With all that she has going on, Venitucci finds time for the sweet things in her life.

“I love cooking, baking and reading,” she shares. “I’ve played the piano since I was 5 years old, I learned how to read music scores before I learned how to read books. I love singing, and I am a trained mezzo-soprano opera singer.”

She offers advice to other women: “Some of us tend to self-censor, or limit ourselves, because of the impostor syndrome. But women are wonderful at organizing, leading projects and being efficient, because they often juggle multiple roles and tasks in their life. If you have an idea, go for it! 

“If you don’t feel comfortable starting something yourself, find an accountability buddy,” she suggests. “If you prefer to be on your own, find an inspiring figure. I look up to several female role models.”  

 

Denise Del Vescovo, a resident of Flanders for the past 20 years, has juggled being a mom of four sons aged 14 to 22, working and volunteering. 

She’s had many roles in town from being on the booster club for high school basketball and serving as a room mom for numerous years.

“My greatest accomplishment has been starting my own travel business after being in the corporate world for over 20 years,” says Del Vescovo. 

She has been able to switch gears and take chances. 

“I believe that the best advice is to never be scared to make a change at any age- especially if it’s moving towards something that you’re passionate about,” says Del Vescovo. “The determination and passion to create something positive that you want to share with the world is the best drive for success. I love owning my small business and traveling the world.”

As a mother, she says “My biggest advice would be to not beat yourself up. You are always your own worst critic.” 

She’s enjoyed being a “sports mom” and even has future plans to come up with unique fundraising ideas for youth sports. 

“Bringing up four sons, I have seen how they have learned valuable skills such as leadership, responsibility, teamwork, and self-confidence through their participation in soccer and basketball,” says Del Vescoco. “Watching their games- whether it be bright and early on a Saturday morning, or a tournament spanning multiple summer days, brings me so much joy and fulfillment.”

 

Councilwoman Colleen Labow, 67, of Budd Lake since 1979, raised two sons with her husband, has volunteered, worked and is still serving as a civic leader on council. 

When her eldest son, Jeremy started Sandshore Elementary School in 1986, “I volunteered as homeroom mom, helped with the parties, went on class trips. Jeremy moved up to Mt. Olive Middle School and I continued to help when and where I could with the PTA. High School was a lot of fun too on the Parents Club, working at the football concession stand on Friday nights, making hotdogs and soft pretzels.”

She also helped raise money with Tricky Trays and served as a Den Mother for the Cub Scouts Pack 62.

She repeated the drill when her younger son Curtis attended Sandshore in 1995, serving again as homeroom mom, Cub Scout Den mother, PTA at the middle school and Parent’s Club at MOHS.

“In 1999, I was an advocate for victims of domestic violence, by far the most important volunteer position I have served,” says Labow. “In 2001 I decided to run for council for the first time, didn’t win but ran again in 2003, won and started my first 4-year term in 2004, ran and won in 2007, again in 2011, again in 2015 then again in 2023 making this one my sixth term being the first woman in Mt. Olive Twp. to serve six terms.”

As a councilwoman, Labow has served as the council liaison to many committees and boards and this year is on the environmental and lake committees.

Her greatest accomplishment has been: “Helping our residents when and where I can. At this point, I do believe that our residents for the most part know they can come to me with questions, suggestions, and I will do whatever I can to help them.”

Her goal is to “Continue to help when and where I am needed and enjoy all of the wonderful parks, trails, we have in our town,” and of course enjoy spending time with her family, grandson Tyler and granddaughter Alexis.

Labow offers her advice to other women: “Choose something you really enjoy. If it is government, learn all that you can.” 

Congratulations to all Mt. Olive women and all that she achieves.

Memoirist, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (1928-2014) sums it up the best- “My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” 

Outside of raising her two sons, Cecilia Thea Dunkle, 69, of Budd Lake, is best known as the town’s historian. 

“I was one of four founding members of the Mt. Olive Township Historical Society which was founded in October 1997,” she shares.  She was president for many years and was officially appointed township historian.  “I have worked on many projects and done extensive research for them; always willing to share Mt. Olive’s rich history.”

Dunkle’s accomplishments run deep, with most of them researching the history of Flanders and Budd Lake, especially its veterans. Dunkle wrote a booklet on the Mt. Olive Veterans that died during war time; cleaned up the veterans’ monument area when it was on Route 46; was involved in a re-dedication of the monument for 2000; added 18 civil war veterans on the monument that died during active duty; was involved in moving the Veterans Monument to Turkey Brook Park; and served on the All-Veterans Memorial Committee. She also worked with the Planning Board on naming street names for the Mt. Olive Fallen Veterans and continues to work with township employees to add additional veterans’ street names.  

When it comes to research, Dunkle is quite thorough. She researched the Seward Mansion and family and in 2003 was instrumental in securing that the structure remains standing by presenting the history and genealogy of the Seward family. She also researched the Mt Olive Baptist Church and Village which greatly assisted with the renovations for the Mt Olive Baptist Church. 

Through her work, Dunkle was involved with the restoration of the Stark Cemetery and documented many of the local cemeteries, receiving two grants from the Morris County Heritage Commission. That project is ongoing as new burials continue.  

She’s written the mayor’s wall collections in town hall by writing a bio on each mayor and placed four Heritage Commission Markers in historical areas and moving the Flanders Marker to its current place.

Dunkle has given many presentations such as the Anniversary of the Chamber of Commerce, Farrow and Wolfes families, Mt. Olive Village, Camp Goodland and others. 

Her projects and contributions are endless. She educates people how to work on their family genealogy, cleans the headstones in the Baptist Cemetery and designed and sold two historical blankets showing townships’ historical sites.  

As for her future goals, Dunkle plans to continue her work as a Mt. Olive historian and stay involved with its historical society, continue her research and development of the preservation of the Seward Mansion and Baptist Church, continue documenting the cemeteries and cleaning the headstones as well as researching older homes and structures in Mt. Olive.  

Her other interests include needlepoint, cake decorating, travel, dancing, antique shops, garage sales and spending time with friends and family.

She offers some advice: “Do or find what makes you happy and makes you feel fulfilled,” says Dunkle. “Always strive to do your best.  Be open to different interests and trying different things.  Always be open to making new friendships.”

 

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