Voorhees Breakfast Rotary Club to honor outstanding individuals

Annual Voorhees Township Community Service Awards Dinner to be recognized on Thursday, Jan. 24

The Voorhees Breakfast Rotary Club recently announced it will celebrate three individuals at its annual Voorhees Township Community Service Awards Dinner.

Juliana Petito-Maffei was chosen as Voorhees Citizen of the Year, while Dr. Joel E. Elfman was chosen as Voorhees Businessperson of the Year, and Brandon Smeltzer, a student at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, was chosen as Voorhees Selfless Student of the Year.

According to Mark Schott, co-chair of the Community Service Awards Dinner, the community was able to nominate individuals through social media or other avenues for one of the three awards, giving a description of why they believe the person deserves the award.

A committee of seven members with the Voorhees Breakfast Rotary Club then selects the individual most deserving of the award, based on the criteria for that award.

For Citizen of the Year, Schott says the main emphasis is on someone who helps others anywhere in the world. This year’s award winner is one of the founders of SPEAK Voorhees, a nonprofit entering its 10th year focused on helping those with special needs in the South Jersey area.

SPEAK Voorhees offers a variety of opportunities for those with special needs to interact with others in a more comfortable setting than most may experience. The organization hosts an annual 5K walk/run, a summer basketball program, holiday parties and more.

“These really need to be tailored towards people with special needs, depending upon their issues,” Petito-Maffei said. “If they’re not tailored, it becomes very overwhelming for them, and in some cases, they can’t even participate because they get too nervous.”

“Because we’ve been able to kind of carve out niches of opportunity, they’ve been able to blossom, and we’ve seen that carry through now over so many years,” Petito-Maffei added.

Essentially, activities or events most might take for granted can cause stress for those with special needs. SPEAK Voorhees has offered those people the opportunity to experience such things in an environment where they feel comfortable, enabling them to grow as people.

For example, she says in the past the organization has gone to a pool and been able to introduce those who may not have felt comfortable enough to try swimming to have that experience in a safe setting, alongside family and friends they’ve met at previous meetings with the organization, setting aside fear of judgment from others.

Petito-Maffei’s son has autism. He’s the leading reason she decided to start the organization over a decade ago with two fellow South Jersey residents whose children have special needs.

Her son was able to swim, and to her amazement, even try sitting in a kayak, at the pool, something she was surprised her son was interested in.

“Flash forward five years later, we drove up to New Hampshire and there’s a place that has kayaks. They drive you a mile up and you go down — it’s very calm,” Petito-Maffei said. “Because we had done that together a couple of times before … if not for that other opportunity where he was able to ease into the activity, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. It’s overwhelming.”

The organization can help those with special needs ages 3 to 21 years old, and she says she thoroughly enjoys being able to give others the opportunity to enjoy activities they may not be able to try otherwise.

“We created something that we’re very proud of and that has brought something of benefit and consistency to the community,” Petito-Maffei said. “When you look back and see the successes and the joys … it gives you a good sense of pride that you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, which is awareness and opportunity.”

Residents can look for ways to assist the organization by visiting the website at speaksj.org.

Elfman, is an orthodontist in Voorhees, with a strong focus to giving back to the community. He has supported or participated in multiple community events over the years, supporting the Alicia Rose Victorious Foundation, Toys for Tots, Support the Troops, the American Cancer Society’s Ride for a Cure and more. He also supports numerous sports leagues and additional youth activities.

A patient nominated Elfman, having seen the numerous causes the dentist has supported over the years. He felt compelled to recognize Elfman.

“I think it’s very important that, since the community supports my business, that I support the community as well,” Elfman said. “I like to sponsor certain events or donate. It comes down to the philosophy that it supports the schools, especially when they’ve cut their budgets and times are really difficult.”

Smeltzer, recognized as Voorhees Selfless Student of the Year, will also be honored at the dinner but was not able to be contacted before print.

The Voorhees Township Community Service Awards Dinner is Thursday, Jan. 24, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Lucien’s Manor in Berlin. Tickets are $80 each or $625 for a table of eight. Information can be found at portal.clubrunner.ca/5137.