Sit back, relax and join The Sun as we look back at Medford’s exciting 2019

Many people look back on a year to see how much they’ve changed, this time, look back on the township to see what happened within 365 days.

Within the blink of an eye, a year came and went just as quickly as the decade. Raise your glasses filled with your preferred choice of a liquid, clink them with a loved one and party like it’s 2020. After all, we are (almost) in a new decade, but let’s remember 2019 for the news that occurred in Medford Township.

Shawnee honors its employees of the year

Health and physical education teacher Amy Johnston and counselor Erin O’Neill were recognized as the school’s teacher and educational service professional of the year, respectively.

Johnston, who coaches girls soccer, lacrosse and winter track, felt honored to be able to interact with students to help them live happy and healthy lives, on and off the field. Her work in Shawnee does not stop in athletics and the school’s gym; she is heavily involved in the senior and staff days of service, #NotEvenOnce (drug addiction and prevention program), and wellness fairs for both staff and students.

“The thing I enjoy most about my career is the connections you make with the students,” Johnston said. “It’s so important, especially in this department, to make sure they’re living healthy lives moving forward in their future and to give them everything we can to prepare them for the future.”

Roughly 240 students stop in O’Neill’s office to receive advice and information on making sound decisions for their post-high school lives, or to seek assistance in dealing with personal issues. Counseling extends beyond her office as she participates in the intervention and referral services team, runs the newcomer’s committee and helps run the Upstander program.

“I love working with the students, it’s always been my dream to be a high school counselor so when I was hired here… it’s just every day is different, every student is different and watching them grow over four years is so rewarding for me,” O’Neill said. “It was my dream to work here so I’m very happy.”

Medford Sunrise Rotary introduces ‘Field of Honor’

People of Medford who have demonstrated “service above self” were properly honored as the Medford Sunrise Rotary introduced the township’s first Field of Honor.

Club Vice President Chris Forward said residents were welcomed to nominate someone who is a hero to them such as a family member who served in the Armed Forces, a first responder or a dedicated philanthropist. Nominees had a flag with a medallion hung at Freedom Park, which they were able to take home once the flags were taken down.

“It’s hard to describe the moving feeling that one has when you show up with 1,800 flags just fluttering in the breeze and walk in between the flag poles and see all the medallions of all the people that are the heroes to those in the community,” Forward said. “That is what we’re hoping to do.”

Shawnee graduate unlocks the secrets of magic and giving back

A card trick, the disappearance of objects and changing the forms of others has helped a 2019 Shawnee graduate raise thousands for Make-A-Wish New Jersey and a friend who lost their home in a fire.

In March, Jake Strong performed numerous tricks to the amazement of many to not only show his skills and expertise in the profession, but to encourage others to support charities and think about others who are less fortunate. Each event Strong hosted raised around $2,500 for Make-A-Wish; it is unclear on how much he raised from Shawnee.

“I just want to show how much giving back can make a difference and how much one person can make a difference,” Strong said. “Nothing’s impossible. That’s what magic is for me, it just proves that absolutely nothing is impossible, and that’s what Make-A-Wish has proven year after year after year. With everyone uniting to see this show and giving money to a good cause, we can help continue to prove that.”

Girl Scouts pack blessings in a bag for Unforgotten Haven

Each week, the Unforgotten Haven does homeless outreach visits to Philadelphia and Medford’s Girl Scout Troop 20118 lent a helping hand to the Blackwood-based charity to donate nearly 150 blessing bags.

The bags included socks, toiletries, hand warmers and pre-packaged snacks – all of which were collected at Cranberry Pines School and Medford Bagel. Fifth-graders worked with younger Scouts to guide them on how to assemble the bags.

“Even the little things really help people every single day. We’re giving them things they don’t have,” Scout Ella Kenderdine said. “I want to go home knowing that I helped lots of people. Going home knowing I have a toothbrush and socks – it’s the little things.”

Council adopts flat budget while school districts are on the rise

In the Lenape Regional budget for Medford Township, residents saw an average annual increase of $59.46 for their regional school district taxes for a home assessed at the average value of $326,500.

Medford’s Board of Education adopted its 2019-2020 budget with a 2.28 percent increase. For  a home assessed at the township average of $326,500, residents saw an average annual increase of $93.06 in their local school taxes.

Medford Township, however, passed a flat budget for 2019 due to health benefits and debts substantially decreasing. The capital plan included road improvements, resources for emergency services, roadside mower and security enhancements at park bathrooms. The program was offset by the earlier decreases as well as current collections from taxpayers.

Regional, local school boards learn about each other’s impact of the state aid cuts

Shawnee High School was the host of a multi-district forum in February, coordinated by Lenape Regional, to discuss their impact on the reduction of state aid and their sending district’s losses as well. The seven districts, with the exception of Mt. Laurel and Medford Lakes, are expected to lose a combined $24 million by the 2024-2025 school year.

A vocal critic of the sharp cuts, Evesham Township Superintendent John Scavelli Jr. stated his district has an estimated loss of $9 million in funding by the 2024-2025 school year. The district has dropped in enrollment since its 2003 peak, but ratables and residents’ wealth have risen in that time period.

Joe Del Rossi, Medford Township Public Schools Superintendent, commented if Lenape’s sending district cuts don’t get reversed, taxes would need to be raised to recuperate the loss and further cuts would need to be done in academic programs, social and emotional learning, personnel and facilities.

Southampton Superintendent Michael Harris placed himself in the front seat of the statewide coalition of districts called Support Our Students advocacy group. Members hail from more than 60 districts serving nearly 140,000 students in the state. The group, Harris said, urges residents to persuade their state lawmakers to enact a change to address their needs for equitable funding for the state’s 585 districts.

The breakdown of expected cuts are:

Evesham Township is estimated to lose about $9,003,394; Lenape Regional is estimated to lose about $8,308,946; Medford Township is estimated to lose about $1,603,435; Shamong Township is estimated to lose about $1,155,459; Southampton Township is estimated to lose about $1,141,089; Tabernacle Township is estimated to lose about $2,752,887 and Woodland Township is estimated to lose about $186,164.

It is unclear what Medford is doing to combat its $1.6 million loss.

Resident makes a 26.2 mile stride for a cure

Sean Kennedy loves to run. In fact, he’s done several marathons and half-marathons across the country and this year, he took it a step further to run in the ever-popular Boston Marathon.

And he does it all for a good cause.

Kennedy’s run benefited the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which is one of the world’s leading centers in cancer research and treatment for adults and children. In 2018, he raised more than $20,000 for the institute, smashing his $5,000 goal out of the park.

“Boston being my favorite city, the Boston Marathon being as prestigious as it is, my personal family history with cancer and Dana-Farber being so important in all of that, it’s kind of like a whole bunch of things coming together,” Kennedy said. “I’m really fortunate to be able to participate in it.”

Kennedy has a personal tie to cancer research as his sister-in-law passed away from a rare form of stomach cancer, granting him to have custody of his niece.

The runners geared up and ran the marathon on April 15, however, it is unknown how much they raised.

‘Tree City’ Medford plants more trees to boost environment

Chairville Elementary School students helped Medford become a greener community with the planting of a bur oak tree on Arbor Day. The Arbor Day Foundation encourages people throughout the country to plant trees wherever possible on the holiday.

Medford, being one of only two municipalities in the state to be designated as a Tree City, USA, has hundreds of thousands of trees throughout the township. The township’s Environmental Affairs Advisory Committee and the Pinelands Garden Club spoke to all in attendance about the importance of trees and what they supply for the health of humans and animals.

“Further, I urge all citizens to plant and care for trees to gladden the heart and promote the well-being of this and future generations,” councilwoman Lauren Kochan said as she read the proclamation to the audience.

The committee distributed 300 free tree seedlings to residents to plant in their backyards and joined the Medford-Vincentown Rotary to plant 40 trees at Cow Point.

Lenape Regional honors its 2019 graduates for signing up to serve their country

The Lenape Regional High School District continued its tradition of honoring 2019 graduates who have moved on to serve in either branches of the military, military academies or join college ROTC programs. Staff, family, friends, veterans and active-duty service members gathered at Lenape High School to provide guidance to the graduates and their well wishes. From the district’s four high schools, 25 students were honored during the ceremony. From Shawnee are students Michael Blackwell, Aditya Deshmukh, Sean Riley and Marc Voorhees.

Nothing’s better than a warm pizza from your hoodie

A civil engineer needed to find a way how to keep his pizza warm and be able to savor the cheesy goodness – so he created a pizza hoodie. Yes, a hoodie with a pocket to store your favorite slice.

As crazy as the idea sounded to Mike Hourani, he thought “why not” and followed through to see what could happen. Four years late, he revealed his invention, started crowdfunding on Kickstarter and became an internet sensation within 72 hours.

His fame was documented in Food & Wine magazine, 6ABC and the network’s owner ABC, a Tampa Bay Fox affiliate and radio shows, including one in Japan.

“Do those people like pizza the way Americans like pizza? I was in Japan last year, and we were looking for pizza places…and we couldn’t find a pizza place that wasn’t a gourmet or fancy pizza place,” he said.

The creation came to fruition and can be bought by visiting ThePizzaPocket.com if you need to take your pizza with you on your travels.

Co-anchor of “Good Morning America” Dan Harris, who was overflowing with laughter, said it was a comical coincidence for the hoodie to be created in New Jersey, “of all places.”

Shawnee student gives the royal treatment to cancer patients

A Shawnee student used her love of princesses to form a nonprofit and make the lives of cancer patients brighter.

Rebecca Leavens founded Princess Empowerment, an organization that creates tiaras with a special headband to be worn comfortably by girls with cancer.

“It made me feel really good about myself in a world where it’s hard for girls to feel good about themselves. And as I grew up, I realized that all girls don’t have this experience,” said Leavens, a junior at Shawnee High School and a Medford resident.

Leavens created the nonprofit to not only give girls a hair accessory, but to also allow them to have a fun experience by decorating the tiaras and dressing up as a princess.

To get started, Leavens emailed almost every cancer charity within a three-hour commute to see if she could set up a tiara workshop. She soon realized it could be more than just a hobby. In her first four events, Leavens made about 500 tiaras.

“They just want to be kids, they don’t want to lie in bed and be ‘the sick chemo patient’ or be cried over, they simply just want to dress up like a princess,” Leavens said.

Medford Council met with tension with the proposed dual town hall and library building

Medford residents got a full look at the township’s plans for a dual town hall and library during a council meeting on Aug. 20.

Council held a special presentation at the meeting to clarify and answer questions from residents about the proposed building, which is scheduled to be built in 2020.

The presentation was made after news coverage and lengthy public discourse on social media.

“There was a lot of things out in the public that were just clearly wrong,” Mayor Charles Watson said. “We just saw a lot of misinformation out there and want to just put as much of the facts out there as we could.”

Watson also clarified the fate of the Jonathan Haines House, a historic landmark in town, after rumors circulated the building would be torn down.

“We have no intention on tearing the building down,” Watson said.

Watson added taxes would not increase to pay for the building. Council had approved $6 million in 2018 to be used for the construction and an additional $500,000 in 2019.

The township, with the assistance of the Burlington County Library System, also planned to apply for the new NJ Library Construction Bond Act to offset costs for the library portion of the building. While grants aren’t anticipated to be accepted until 2020, it has the potential to fund up to 50 percent of the project’s cost.

Most residents who attended the meeting were in favor of the proposed project. The concerns residents brought up were mostly related to traffic and parking. Watson assured the residents there will be “adequate parking” that will “meet or exceed” the township standards.

New nonprofit instills pride on Main Street

Another new nonprofit in Medford was formed this year to promote businesses along Main Street and provide a welcoming and safe environment for residents in the LGBTQ community.

Medford resident Justin Gibbs founded Medford Pride on Main, an organization aiming to create a community where everyone of any background can feel welcome in town and to promote businesses along the corridor.

Gibbs formed the organization after a visit to New Hope, Pa. in June where he saw how welcoming the community there was. Gibbs, who is gay, became inspired afterward and wanted to bring that sense of belonging to Medford.

“I made a Facebook post on a community page and I was thinking about how it would be taken, and the community grabbed it, and ran with it,” he said. “After that, I put up a post and asked for help, and I had a meeting with them, and we created a Facebook page for it and it blew up.”

The organization built connections with the Gay Straight Alliance club at Shawnee High School and Rowan College at Burlington County to provide resources to students, and give them the opportunity to run or speak at events.

With Medford’s Main Street being a hot spot in town, the organization decided to center all of its events and activities along Main Street.

“That’s why I thought of the name, Medford Pride on Main, because our Main Street is like our Thanksgiving dinner, and the businesses are our tableware,” Gibbs said. “Everything we do is focused on Medford and the businesses and promoting the downtown and the local shops.”

The organization hosts a number of educational events for people in the community to attend. The events center on topics such as the struggles the LGBTQ community faces, how people can assist others, how it impacts children at school and home, and also personal coming out stories.

“We’ll have the forums for people to just come out and learn about all different things because there are things that everyone can learn about, including myself as a gay man that I don’t know,” Gibbs said.

To donate, volunteer or learn about events the organization has, visit www.MedfordPrideOnMain.com.

Tom Gerber takes after family to join the firefighting service — specifically, forest fires

The Sun caught up with Medford resident Tom Gerber, the southern Burlington County section warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service for the past 40 years, to talk about his job and how he got into the industry.

“My father had been the warden, and at that time, there weren’t a lot of homes in the woods like now,” Gerber said. “My father did belong to the fire department. I had spent most of my time being focused on wildfires.”

As warden, Gerber’s main job focuses on preventing unintentional fires and doing controlled burns to keep the Pinelands forest healthy. When a fire does occur, Gerber typically coordinates the firefighting effort to keep fires contained and gets any residents who are in the path of the wildfire to safety.

“When it comes to law enforcement, we affix a cause to every fire, which needs to be thoroughly investigated,” he said. “We’re trained investigators, so we actually figure out what started a fire. If it’s a human-caused fire, we trace that back and take appropriate law enforcement action.”

Gerber and others observe weather conditions, call for investigations of smoke and pinpoint fire locations from the top of area fire towers. He also keeps equipment on standby at home, such as a brush truck that holds 300 gallons of water and can maneuver on unpaved roads with an extra tank of gas, tools and saws.

Anyone hoping to get involved with the state forest fire service can visit FireWise.org or visit the state Division of Forest Fire Service within the Department of Environmental Protection at NJParksAndForests.org.

Woodford Cedar Run says ‘goodbye’ to beloved director

Animal lover Jeanne Gural bid adieu to the wildlife refuge after dedicating more than 10 years of hard work into making it into what it is now. Gural served as the executive director and was a part of efforts to get proper compensation for staff and improve working conditions.

By watching her interaction with Cedar Run’s resident animals, it’s easy to see Gural is in love with each and holds personal ties to them. From saying “hi” to Blueberry the blue jay, to a duo of bald eagles or crows, Gural loves being the one who “has fun” with the animals.

“It is an amazing thing to watch how Cedar Run has grown because sometimes you don’t recognize how the stuff you’re doing out there is going to impact what you’re doing here,” Gural said. “I am quite proud of not only the work that I’ve done, but also the work that the entire team has done.”

The animal lover is now sitting in the Midwestern state of Ohio at the Wilderness Center in Wilmont, Ohio.

Shawnee sophomore uses her words to move through a catastrophe

Shawnee sophomore Sophia Westfall only needed 100 words to tell a story and her efforts were done so well, she was among the winners of the Young Writers USA’s Survivor: Mission Catastrophe contest. She also won the esteemed ability to have her story sent into the U.S. Library of Congress and Shawnee’s media center in the form of an anthology.

The award-winning writer based her story on a war claiming 14 billion lives and having a lack of a “winner” because everyone was dead. Her articulate imagination solidified her desire to study writing and the arts in college.

“I love writing such [things] as little short stories, or jotting things down in the corner of my notebook,” she said. “I love expressing my drawings because I love drawing mythical creatures, history and anything I can relate to.”

As someone who loves the English language and who comically said she studies the dictionary, Westfall said she does have a few personally favorite words.

“‘Bewildered’ – there’s something about it. It’s a little magical and wild,” she said.

She listed “eccentric” as another favorite because it’s fun to spell and write, and “throb” because it’s one of those words that expresses pain so well.

“‘Susceptible’ is a fun word to say,” she added.

Medford Lakes residents looks back on time spent in Navy

Bob Barrall didn’t know what he wanted to do after high school. He landed in the Navy as a chef. He enlisted in the Navy at the height of World War II, which helped persuade him to be a sailor.

“People in the Army were getting killed and people were getting killed, too, in the Navy, but my thinking was if they sink my ship, I can swim,” he joked. “Only a kid can think of those kind of things.”

He became a chef following his parents’ heavy involvement in a Pennsylvania Dutch bakery and assumed Barrall had to have picked up a skill or two while there. The position helped him find his favorite “weapon” of choice… a spatula.

After his two-year involvement in the Navy, he received proper education to become a teacher and taught at Lower Camden County Regional High School (now Eastern Regional High School) and in Berlin Borough’s school district.

Following his brief period in the profession, he switched to join the medical field and worked at Pfizer for roughly 30 years as a consultant to doctors, teaching them about medications and how they interact with one another and how they treat patients’ medical needs.

Morgan Kelly ready to celebrate two years seizure-free

A terrifying moment on a soccer field brought Shawnee freshman Morgan Kelly to learn more about her condition and how to help others.

Nine years ago, Morgan experienced her first seizure and learned she was diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological disorder. Not knowing much about the disorder, Morgan and her mom Cindy aggressively researched ways to live with this and doctors who can provide viable treatments to the then 10-year-old. Fast-forward to Jan. 5, 2018 at Johns Hopkins Medicine and Morgan awakes from a laser ablation surgery to alleviate her seizures. Since the surgery, she has had no seizures and is on one medication to date – something Cindy says is nothing short of a blessing. The Kelly family became advocates for people with hidden health ailments such as ADHD, Asperger’s and depression, or those who are going through a rough time in their lives.

“We might not have the same disease or situation, but we all learned along the way as far as being a health advocate or how social things affect us,” Cindy said. “There’s so many things that I would love to be able to talk to support groups or caregiver groups about, and just help people to let them know they’re not alone.”