Whether it is in education, local government or juvenile justice, Bordentown resident Heather Cheesman, 46, has devoted her life to serving others and making her community a better place with her efforts.
She has served as deputy mayor and commissioner of revenue and finance for the City of Bordentown, as vice president for the Bordentown Regional School District, resident for the Bordentown Elks chapter, amongst various others positions, and was worked tirelessly to raise her voice for good. An now, Cheesman has made local history by being named the first female exalted ruler of the Bordentown Elks.
Cheesman’s family has been in Bordentown for a few generations, and she grew up in the are, as well. Early on, she found a passion for leadership. “In sixth grade, I served in a form of student government, since I’ve always been the person sitting in the front with something to say,” she said. She went on to serve as class president from eighth grade to her senior year of high school.
She then attended Rowan University, where she found her way back to student government. “In freshman year I decided not to run and take a break, but some issue triggered me, and I decided to run a write-in campaign to become a senator,” she said. “I was approached to become vice president, but I decided to run for president instead, and won. Along with free room and board, I got to meet some amazing people that year.”
During college, she interned at the Garden State Youth Facility as a social worker, where she started getting exposure to the criminal justice system. She then worked as a border patrol agent for the Department of Immigration and Naturalization. After graduating from Rowan University in 1997 with a degree in criminal justice, she started working as a teacher and counselor at the Juvenile Justice Commission.
‘The Bordentown area has many different people who always come together in good times and bad.’
Shifting slightly to the field of education, Cheesman earned a masters in special education from Rider University in 2003, after which she became a special education teacher in the Bordentown school district, and then the district vice president.
Although Cheesman is heavily involved in fields focused on public service, she wanted to find more ways to help her community. “When I came home, I found it hard for me to not say anything. I just get involved. I’d like to think I’ve always been an advocate and resource for people, and I enjoy being a part of my community,” she said.
Because of this, during her early career growth and transition, Cheesman also became heavily involved with the Bordentown Elks Lodge, an organization that focuses on investing in local communities through fundraising, providing space for events, and even hosting weddings (including one in which Cheesman served as the ordained minister).
“My parents were both members, so I grew up hearing about it. Whenever someone needs help, we’re definitely the group that people turn to for monetary or physical support. We provide medical equipment, hold fundraisers, and provide scholarships,” she said.
On the other hand, “when people have something to celebrate, people turn to the lodge to use our space to enjoy, and I think it’s amazing how many memories people have with the Elks,” she continued.
After getting involved and working up the ranks, Cheesman soon became the first female president and grant coordinator for the Bordentown Elks, helping the organization continue to grow and making sure that they can support their community in every way possible. “If you come and hang out at the lodge, every dollar goes to some good cause,” Cheesman said.
In 2007, because of her focus on community service and government, Cheesman became the deputy clerk for the Borough of Fieldsboro, before becoming the Chief of Staff for the Burlington County Clerk Tim Tyler in 2009. “Even here, I find great pleasure in solving people’s problems. When people reach out, it’s usually about a life situation that doesn’t occur often. We try to solve their issues and help navigate them through the system,” Cheesman said.
“I just have this passion for helping people, and for some reason it comes easy to me.”
In the same year, Cheesman was appointed deputy mayor of Bordentown, and served as the Commissioner of Revenue and Finance. She served in this capacity until 2013, and during her time in office, she brought to focus environmental issues through the creation of the Green Team, a committee as part of the Bordentown City Environmental Commission dedicated to making Bordentown more sustainable. She also helped start the local Farmer’s Market.
Throughout her career, Cheesman has faced obstacles like sexism and self-doubt. “I was probably more naive when I was younger, but locally, when I ran for commissioner, I definitely noticed the concept of old families vs. new families,” she said. “I was only the second woman than ran and become a commissioner in Bordentown City’s history. But the most apparent sexism I’ve faced is in the Department of Corrections, because in that field, many people think women can’t handle the job and so you have to work twice as hard to prove that you can do it.”
Even with her work in the Bordentown Elks Lodge, Cheesman had to work past the older image of the Elks as a male-dominated environment. “Traditionally, the Elks was men only, and so there’s been a transition to allow women,” she said. “Change is slow, and culture is even slower. My challenge has been moving the perception of the Elks from being a men-only place to a family-friend atmosphere.”
For the young women aspiring for a career in public service, Cheesman offered words of advice based on her own experience with these unspoken obstacles. “Don’t think you’re crazy, they are there,” she said. “I remember having a lot of self-doubt at times. It’s not overt, but you do get the sense sometimes. So you just have to believe that it’s not you, and you have to keep moving and keep doing.”
“The current age is incredible, because you can have that conversation, and people are generally hearing instead of ignoring you. There’s plenty of fields where both men and women are trying to do something different, and it’s difficult. But I think we’re now in a much more accepting world,” she added.
To overcome these barriers, Cheesman had a variety of female role models. “There are many women in our town who are my heroines and mentors and I want to thank all of them,” she said. “My mom, Patti DeSantis, was the greatest influence in my decision to be part of the community, she was a very active member in many organizations. Ellen Wehrman was not only my third grade teacher, but was a great mentor and friend in all of my endeavors. They both taught me to learn, to be brave, and to give back. In honor of them, I try to remember to do the same for the young women and men that are stepping up and guiding our community.”
Through her experience in public service, Cheesman has learned two important lessons. First, someone doesn’t need to have certain titles or positions to accomplish meaningful and valuable work. And second, change comes slow. “Through my experience as city commissioner, I learned that making positive change takes time,” she said. “Even if you have all the right plans and ideas, you need the right people to make something happen, and that can take a while.”
Looking forward, Cheesman hopes to continue her work with Tim Tyler, and spend more time with her children Michael “Max” Berton, 16, and Magdalena “Maggie” Berton, 14, who both attend Bordentown Regional High School.
“The Bordentown area has many different people who always come together in good times and bad. I’m proud to be a part of Bordentown City, Bordentown Township and Fieldsboro,” Cheesman said.