Garfield-Szita is chamber’s Athena winner for 2013

Staff Writer

 MARK Bernice Garfield-Szita MARK Bernice Garfield-Szita A woman riding off into the sunset on a horse with her prince is a good story. A woman riding her own horse alongside her prince is a better one.

That was the message Bernice Garfield- Szita relayed to the audience at the Greater Monmouth Chamber of Commerce Athena Award luncheon held at the Battleground Country Club, Manalapan, on Nov. 1.

During the luncheon, Garfield-Szita was announced as the recipient of the 2013 Athena award.

Her professional career spans 50 years, beginning as a fine arts and drama educator, before working in a private counseling practice. She served as coordinator of counseling and education in the hospice and oncology department at CentraState Medical Center, Freehold Township, from 1985-98.

Garfield-Szita is a co-founder of Grief Information Education and Recovery Services, which provides grief counseling and education services. She is a co-founder and artistic director of Center Players, Freehold.

The Manalapan resident thanked her husband Bob, whom she called her “mentor, muse, collaborator and best friend.” She said that without his support, she never would have been able to achieve success with everything she has worked on over the years.

“I believe every one of the [Athena] nominees agrees that the work we do is our reward, but it is so marvelous when it is recognized,” she said.

She thanked the chamber, the sponsors and the Athena Award Committee for what she called “the greatest honor in my life.”

Garfield-Szita said that when she joined the chamber of commerce, there were not many members who were working in the field of mental health.

“I was known as the touchy-feely lady back then,” she said. “Eventually, everyone understood what we were doing.”

Her involvement with the Women in Business Committee of the chamber from 1996 to 2008 offered empowering programs for women. She said the programs educated and prepared women “to take the next step” in the business world.

Garfield-Szita currently serves the chamber as the diversity committee chair, where she “helps build bridges,” which is something she likes to do.

Joining the chamber was also building a bridge, according to the Athena recipient, who said that when she joined the chamber, it was an “old boys club.”

“Women had to sneak in,” she said. “Now we have our girls and our boys.”

Garfield-Szita shared some thoughts about what she learned through her work with hospice patients who spoke of their endof life issues.

“They did not talk about how much money they had in the bank. They talked about the impact they had on their families and their work,” she said, adding that the patients became like a road map for her as to where to put her energy, and helped her make choices she said she will never regret.

She also learned from clients in her practice. She spoke about a girl who used to talk about being carried off into the sunset on a horse by her prince.

“I asked her what the scenario would be after that scene in the sunset,” she recalled. “Eventually, she realized she needed a horse of her own and not just to ride sidesaddle.”

Friends continue to ask her when she and her husband will retire.

“We thought about that place in the sun where we …” Garfield-Szita said, hesitating. She then added, “sit and wait. We decided we are not retiring, we are re-firing — and will continue to do the work that has great value for us.”

Garfield-Szita concluded by telling the audience that she starts the day with a prayer: “God help me to do your loving work with peace and harmony.” She ends her day by asking herself, “Well, how did you do?”

Garfield-Szita said she hopes to carry the honor of the Athena award with “grace, humility and humor.”

In addition to Garfield-Szita, the Athena nominees were Pamela Caputo, managing director, I Deserve Fitness Studio; Barbara A. Fuller, president, Focus on You Now; Maureen Murphy, president, Brookdale Community College; and Sharon Seitzman, president, QualCare Inc.

“Their commitment to professional excellence, community and, critical to the Athena spirit, creating opportunities for the advancement for women, is humbling and inspiring,” said Samantha Homer Padilla, the executive director of the chamber. “And each one of the opportunities they create, each woman or girl’s life they touch, has an impact. It creates a ripple effect. This is the legacy that Athena recipients pass on to our future generations, and the chamber is proud and honored to be a part of it.”

Keynote speaker Dr. Margaret Fischer, the 2012 Athena award recipient, called the nominees “spectacular women” and said, “[Women] should be the leaders because, clearly, we do it the best.”

The Athena award event was sponsored by diamond sponsor BMW of Freehold; platinum sponsor CentraState Healthcare System, Freehold Township; and silver sponsors Ampersand Graphics, Marlboro, Especially for You Florist and Gift Shop, Freehold Borough, and Greater Media Newspapers, Manalapan.