Text by Natalie Caudle I Photos by Aimee Sa
others are the fiercest, yet gentlest, of creatures. She is her child’s first teacher, a natural healer and the essence of bravery. Her courage is countered by her comforting spirit as she puts herself aside. Through mundane tasks, she shouts her love. There are few bonds as sacred as that of mother and daughter, a friendship forged through the give and take of a female bond. In today’s culture, a mother is often expected to both nurture and hustle with the style and flair that can only be manufactured. The expectations of the modern mama seem unreachable, but a few local women have raised the bar of what can be achieved as both a mother and entrepreneur. These lives exemplify the adage that strong women really do raise strong women.
Shelley DeJonge and Juliana McWilliams
In 1990, Shelley DeJonge hung out her shingle for the floral shop Sweet Memories, originally located in an old farmhouse in east Visalia. The nostalgic architecture lent itself to the shop’s romantic ambience. Offering dried flowers and gifts, the business was nestled inside the antique store of DeJonge’s sister. In a serendipitous moment, a request for a fresh floral arrangement pushed the shop in a new direction.
It wasn’t long before DeJonge needed a few extra hands to fill orders. Along with her siblings, Juliana McWilliams worked alongside her mom, cleaning buckets, wrapping arrangements and learning the trade. McWilliams was a natural. Apprenticing under her mother, McWilliams began floral arranging as a child, growing like a weed in a flower shop.
The mother-daughter partners recount the early days with joy and laughter. McWilliams jokes, “My mom said yes to everything.” Prom season and Valentine’s Day gave the gals a run for their money as they spent marathon days arranging bouquets and corsages, sleeping behind the shop’s counter and up to late-night shenanigans. “We had the best time!” DeJonge recalls with a smile.
The duo has a strong and steady rhythm beyond that of business partners, an instinctual bond.
When McWilliams relocated to Monterey for a spell, she’d travel home during the busy seasons to work alongside her mom, picking up where they left off.
It is this very kindness and thoughtfulness that sets Sweet Memories apart.
Jen Avila, a former employee, recounts, “I loved working with them. Their relationship while at work was centered on making their customers happy. Shelley would have conversations with all of her customers and really spent time getting to know what brought them into the shop. Juliana has a great sense of humor, but an even better business sense and a huge creative drive.”
Their talents and strengths complement each other both in and out of the workplace.
The roles within the business have changed, McWilliams now leading the way while DeJonge aids in arrangements for weddings and big events, sometimes even washing a bucket or two. Having learned from her mother, McWilliams strives to listen to her customers, caring for them and recognizing every needed detail. Now a mother herself, McWilliams keeps all of the plates spinning as she manages the back office, marketing and floral arranging.
Having recently trained in floral design in both Seattle and Hawaii, McWilliams has learned from some of the best names in the business — giving her a cutting edge in her ambitious designs.
She notes, “Our shop is inspired by nature, texture and color. We often use the natural beauty that is all around us and the places I travel to as inspiration for our designs. We believe flowers are most beautiful in their natural state: wild, unique and wandering.”
While seasons have changed, mom and daughter continue to stay close with regular Sunday family dinners and typical goings-on. Their friendship is evident and palpable. When describing her daughter, DeJonge sums up the heart of a mother: “I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Roberta Stephens and Kelly Lingenfelter
Four years after DeJonge opened shop, another local mother set out to blaze her own trail.
Roberta Stephens and daughter Kelly Lingenfelter began working side by
side in 2008 at Stephens’ company, Medical Billing Technologies (MBT).
Stephens created MBT in 1994 while writing a grant proposal for Healthy Start. Seeing a gap in the Medicaid billing process for special services, Stephens recognized that school districts could benefit from increased funds with the filing of proper paper-work. Filled with her adventurous spirit, Stephens decided to take a leap and
fill the gap.
“I wanted to get back into doing something. My goal was to use my skills and abilities to help others,” Stephens recalls. And so she jumped in, research-ing and learning the needs and the system while working out of her make-shift home office that had been her sewing room.
Today, Stephens’ home is no longer the landing spot for MBT. Rather, rooms in her home are filled with grand-children’s sundries. As MBT has gained success in the past 27 years, contracting with a plethora of school districts across California, their relationship
has grown from one of mother and child, mentor and student, to that of authentic friendship.
In the early years, days were long as Stephens traveled to secure and train new school districts while entering data and paperwork late into the night. Lingenfelter was young at the time, but admired her mother’s determination.
“She’s a hard worker — that’s her skill — absolute tenacity. She would work hard, drive everywhere and still have a ton of energy. When I was in junior high and playing soccer, I needed rides to practice, but mom would always pick me up.” Stephens was able to balance motherhood and a start-up company with grace, no easy feat.
Lingenfelter didn’t expect to go into the family business. Despite its growth and success, Lingenfelter had other plans and they didn’t involve the Central Valley. After college, with some hesitancy, Lingenfelter decided to give it a go and accepted a position at MBT. By this time, the business had moved out of the house and into a large space in town. Much like her mother, Lingenfelter is driven and keeps her nose to the grindstone. MBT continued to thrive, creating new software to aid the business, a program designed by Stephens’ son, Reid, and developed by a software development team in Sri Lanka.
Stephens, now retired, has consistently tended to the mother-daughter relationship, caring for it throughout the years as it morphed through role changes and distance. Today, the team members seek to nourish their friendship outside of the office. No stranger to adventure and travel, the ladies will opt for a day on the slopes over an after-noon lounging poolside. Lingenfelter, married and soon to be a mother, continues to enjoy relaxing with her mom. Biking, pickleball and plant-based gardening and cooking top their list of downtime activities.
The second generation is now managing MBT. Lingenfelter, president of client operations, and brother, Reid Stephens, president of business operations, keep the business moving full steam ahead.
Lingenfelter admires her mother’s wisdom in the workplace. “Sometimes I’ll call mom and ask, ‘What do you do?’ A business will always take on the personality of the leadership. I strive to honor what was and who got us to this point.”
Bringing an edge to the local business community, these four women prove that there is something unique about the magic of the mother-daughter duo and that nothing is impossible with a little creativity and tenacity.