What began as a challenging dream will culminate in an impressive accomplishment when two women join the deputy sheriffs’ roster later this month.Chester County Sheriff Carolyn Bunny Welsh recalled the day about a year and a half ago when security officers Marjorie V. Gonzalez and Deborah A. Holmes requested a meeting with her.
“I remember being quite nervous,” Welsh said. “They had been doing such a great job as security officers, and I was afraid they were going to tell me that they had accepted another position somewhere else.”
Welsh said one of the perils of the county’s employment pay scale is that members of her office are frequently lured to higher-paying opportunities.But Gonzalez and HoImes quickly allayed the sheriff’s fears. They explained that they had been discussing the possibility of attending Delaware County Community College’s Police Academy. If they pursued the part-time program, they could continue as security officers during the year-long curriculum. At the end, they would graduate with Act 120 certification, which is mandated by Pennsylvania to work as a police officer. It also represented the lone requirement preventing the two from moving up the ranks and becoming deputy sheriffs.
Gonzalez and Holmes wanted to hear Welsh’s reaction to their idea.“I was excited and very happy for them,” Welsh said. “I gave them enthusiastic support and then watched as they went through the process.”
Gonzalez said the sheriff’s encouragement didn’t surprise her. “She has always been incredibly supportive,” Gonzalez said. What caught Gonzalez off guard was the speed with which the sheriff’s backing spread. “She called in the chief and then the lieutenants, and all of them were just great,” Gonzalez said. “I really wasn’t expecting that.”
Holmes said the seeds of the plan date back to March 2014 when she began working in the Sheriff’s Office. She said a longtime friend who was working as a deputy immediately suggested that she attend the police academy. At the time, the single mother said her plate was full. In addition to caring for her two sons, she was also providing assistance to her father, who was seriously ill.
But Holmes, a Coatesville High graduate who studied criminal justice at West Chester University, said her friend’s urgings didn’t stop. And when a colleague in the CCSO security force enrolled in the academy in 2017, Holmes regularly peppered him with questions: What do you have to do? How hard is it?
The answers helped Holmes make up her mind in the summer of 2018, secure in the knowledge that she would be fulfilling a wish for her that her late father had often expressed. At the time, she didn’t know that Gonzalez once had the same ambition.
Gonzalez said that hearing Holmes announce her goal reignited her own aspirations. “I had given up on the idea because I didn’t want to go through it myself,” Gonzalez said, adding that the thought of having company appealed to her.
“Marj and I had been working so well together,” said Holmes. “It just made perfect sense,” Gonzalez added.Welsh said one of the most inspiring components of their journey was the pair’s teamwork. “As they met the various challenges, some of which were quite difficult, they kept each other’s spirits up,” Welsh said. “Their synergy together was a joy to watch.”
In addition, the duo’s obvious commitment, perseverance, and dedication inspired others in the office, Welsh said, adding that the training regimen produced a variety of obstacles.
For Gonzalez, a Navy veteran who joined the Sheriff’s Office in April 2011, the physical training and the firearms instruction presented the biggest hurdles. She noted that she and Holmes were the oldest members of their class, and sometimes keeping up with younger classmates proved a bit intimidating.
In addition, Gonzalez, who grew up in Delaware County and attended Haverford High and Millersville State College, had to grapple with some distant memories: She hadn’t used a firearm in more than three decades.
Both women found the schedule grueling. After putting in a full day at the Chester County Justice Center, they fought rush-hour traffic, often just making it to the Delaware County campus in time for roll call at 5:45 p.m. Their classes went from 6 to 10 p.m.
“There really wasn’t time to do anything else,” said Holmes, who beat it back home in time to put her boys to bed.
Holmes also experienced difficulty during the firearms training, but for a different reason. The regimen required participants to add full Saturdays and Sundays to their schedules for six weeks.
“I had no time with my boys for a month and a half,” Holmes said. “That was really rough for me.”
Besides receiving periodic boosts from one another as well as colleagues in the CCSO, both women benefitted from personal support systems. Holmes credited her mother and sons and Gonzalez praised her pastor and members of her church, Saints Memorial Baptist Church in Bryn Mawr.
When graduation time approached, Gonzalez and Holmes learned that if they were employed by a law-enforcement agency, their boss could participate in the ceremony.
“It was such a great honor to stand on that stage and hand them their diplomas,” said Welsh. “It was a special moment for all three of us. These were two extraordinary women who toughed it out through a rigorous program. I couldn’t be prouder of what they accomplished.”
Cpl. Brad DeSando, one of the cheering members of the CCSO at the graduation, confessed to having mixed emotions. “I’m definitely proud of their achievement,” said DeSando. “Obviously our ranks of sworn personnel will benefit from two people who have demonstrated such competence and reliability, and I will continue to support them in any way that I can.” DeSando also explained that he supervises the security force and is therefore losing two stellar officers. “Finding replacements of their caliber is going to be tough,” he said.