Achieving their dreams

Lauren Sliwecki & Patrick Sztenderowicz

June 28, 2019, in New York and April 9, 2022, in Philadelphia

Lauren and Pat had overlapping circles of friends at Cinnaminson High School, but they didn’t really know each other until summer 2007 — the season of her classmates’ graduation parties.

“I graduated in ‘06, but I had a lot of friends in her graduating class, and so we crossed paths quite a bit that summer,” said Pat. They started talking at one party, then sought each other out at the next and the next.

“I was chatting him up,” Lauren said. “Our friends were joking, ‘When did Pat and Lauren start dating all of a sudden?’ ”

Even they aren’t all that sure. But by fall, when Lauren was heading to Fordham University to study television and film production, they were serious enough to discuss the difficulties of distance. They had daily phone calls and saw each other monthly. Most of the time, Lauren took NJ Transit home, as Pat had a more challenging schedule.

Pat studied business at Rutgers University Camden, but withdrew when his father left in 2008 so he could work more hours as a restaurant server and help his mother pay the bills. It has worked out well for their family, but it was a rough time then. Pat’s mother, Janet, decided to let go of their home. She stayed with family for a time, and he, with friends.

Pat got an apartment and rose through the restaurant ranks until he became the manager of a place in Philadelphia. He often worked more than 50 hours a week. When Pat wasn’t home enough to care for his dog, Lauren’s parents, Phyllis and Arthur, welcomed Davidson the dachshund to stay with them.

Through it all, Lauren “was just my rock,” Pat said. “If I had a late shift, she would stay up so we could check in afterward. I was able to decompress, just listening to her. We were always brainstorming together, and she was always encouraging me and asking questions — ‘What’s our goal and what can we be doing to get us there?’ ”

It was with her encouragement and an eye on shared goals that he left the restaurant industry. In 2016, Pat joined the Cherry Hill Wegmans, where he was recently promoted to manager of the Health and Wellness Department.

Lauren graduated from Fordham in 2011. She loved production work — a highlight was a three-month contract with the NBA. But the nomadic lifestyle did not work well with her goals or the couple’s: a stable life with each other and some pups, relatively close to their families. Pat’s two brothers and two sisters; his mother; his stepdad, Stan; and Lauren’s parents and her brother all live in the area. Lauren moved back to Cinnaminson in 2013 and in 2015 took a logistics job for an automotive company.

Pat, who is now 34, and Lauren, now 33, never got an apartment together; he lived with roommates and she with her parents so they could save money for a house. In November 2018, they found the right place, a 1958 Cherry Hill rancher with a fenced-in yard for dogs Bruno the Doberman and Gretta the German shepherd.

The two decided to save again before having a wedding celebration, but they did not want to wait to be married. They had a June 2019 City Hall wedding in New York City. “It was like waiting with 100 people in a deli line, and then we had a two-minute ceremony,” Pat said.

Pat wore his special-occasion suit, Lauren’s mother’s cousin assembled a bouquet that complemented her white floral dress, and her parents were the only guests.

The couple planned to have a big wedding in early 2021, but two weeks after they signed a venue contract, COVID-19 shut down Philadelphia. Since they were already married and they wanted everyone to gather without worry, they postponed for a year.

A postponed wedding was not the biggest impact COVID had on their lives. Pandemic related supply chain issues affected Lauren’s work and, ultimately, her health.

“I was working in customer service and customer retention, and I was working 50 hours a week,” Lauren said. “I’ve dealt with mental health issues since age 11, and it was not sustainable. Sometimes your body makes a decision for you.”

Lauren was hospitalized for a week with stress-induced gastritis. She then required a six-month medical leave to recover at home. Pat also took some weeks off to care for her. “He spent all of his time with me at Cooper, and then when I came home, he said, ‘Focus on your healing; I will take care of everything else,’ ” Lauren remembered. That included dealing with insurance and medical specialists, investigating new medicines, and taking their puppy to obedience classes.

Lauren never wanted a white dress. She expected to find an evening gown, but there were none she really liked. At her mother’s urging, Lauren tried on wedding gowns and found one she loved, except for the color. “I just wish it could be in red,” Lauren said. The owner of Van Cleve Bridal & Evening Wear in Paoli heard her wish and said she knew the designer, and the dress could be made in any color she wanted.

On April 9, 2022, both of Lauren’s parents escorted her down the aisle in that bright red dress at the Loews Hotel, where 80 family members and friends gathered. Pastor Andy performed a nondenominational ceremony. The couple wrote their own vows. Lauren promised to do whatever was necessary to support Pat’s goals so she could see the smile on his face when he achieves them. Whenever Lauren asks Pat for anything, including his attention, he responds with, “Yes, my love.” And so that phrase was sprinkled throughout his vows, as in, “Can I continue to keep the friendship we have shared? Yes, my love.”

The couple took photographer Rebecca Barger’s advice to have all formal photos taken before the ceremony. “It was an amazing suggestion that meant everybody could enjoy cocktail hour,” Lauren said.

Lauren, who was adopted, has always embraced her Colombian heritage. One nod to that: The couple’s salsa-inspired first dance was to Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida.” “The lyrics roughly say, ‘I’m going to live. I’m going to laugh. I’m going to live my life.’ It really spoke to me, and Pat was all for it.”

Lauren also danced with her father and Pat danced with his mother. “It was not really a dance, but more like me hugging her as she was balling with tears of joy,” said Pat.

Even though Pat is afraid of heights, he accompanied Lauren up to the roof for photos, which she appreciated.

Lauren’s positive experience with hospital staff during her illness inspired a career change. She plans to pursue a career in medicine — most likely radiology.

The couple plans to honeymoon in Japan in fall 2023. In the interim, they will save money for the trip, continue working on their house, and enjoy time with their families and dogs.