The first day of summer quietly arrived a couple of weekends ago with little fanfare.
Many of us who have continued to live in the bubble created when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, can occasionally look out the window to see the seasons changing. The view from the sidelines hasn’t been all that bad and, if nothing else, has been a distraction from what was a tumultuous spring.
That 2020 season was both surreal and sad. Many of our regular activities were taken away, sure, but even worse were the peaks and valleys of COVID and the ugliness of rallies for social justice that have been, at times, downright unsettling.
In my job at Sun Newspapers, though, the end of spring brought a renewed sense of hope.
Each year, the 20 papers we publish throughout South Jersey honor the valedictorians and salutatorians of our local high schools. The stories of those students are inspiring, as is the work being done by many other kids and teens throughout our communities in recent months.
If you want to be let down during a time when a pandemic and a civil rights movement have fueled an already divided country, read the comments section of a news story or get lost in the ignorant (at best) replies of any social media post on current events.
If you want to feel hopeful for the future, take a look at the young people in your community.
In Palmyra, one of the smaller towns the Sun covers, valedictorian Kaya Robinson celebrated a high school career that included starting a mentoring program with elementary school students in an effort to bring more diversity into future high school honors classes. Robinson also led her town’s Black Lives Matters rallies and is a star track athlete who, if it hadn’t been for an injury her junior year and a pandemic in her senior year, probably would have earned an athletic scholarship. Instead, she received a full-ride, academic scholarship to Villanova. Not bad, huh?
Palmyra’s salutatorian is similarly multi-talented: Jayme Livingstone opted to hang up her softball spikes and focus on college academics. She spent her extra time this spring learning a new language (her third) and revving up the work in her at-home bake shop, which included delivery of more than five dozen cookies to first responders.
Another teen baker, recent Cherry Hill East grad Marly Gates, plans on attending The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in West Philadelphia. She spent the spring doing her part to help women recovering from domestic violence. Thanks to her own idea and contributions from others via social media, Gates has made more than 100 makeup bags to be delivered to local shelters.
In Marlton, Camden Catholic standout pitcher Eric Cunning was one of many student athletes who used their extra time this spring to help out Cathedral Kitchen in Camden. Cunning worked out of his family’s kitchen to make a few dozen handmade sandwiches for people in need.
Fellow Marlton natives Aren Duffy (a junior at Cherokee High School) and Abigail Sanie (a freshman college student) created QuaranTeen Theatricals, a troupe of around 20 teens in the Philadelphia area, and produced a condensed version of “Into the Woods” to give people in need of entertainment a slice of the theater arts during the pandemic. You can watch the one-hour production on YouTube.
Looking out for all the kids who missed out on vacations and time with friends and family, 2015 Delran High School graduate Alexis Jellison (look for her story in the Delran Sun later this week) tracked down costumes from “Frozen,” “Tangled,” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” perfected her makeup and acting abilities, and produced her own personalized videos of Disney characters for area children.
And it’s not just the mature members of Generation Z; it’s the younger ones, too.
Rising fourth grader Audrey Lange of Horace Mann Elementary in Cherry Hill, wise beyond her years after living in Japan, went to work on her own sewing machine to make protective masks during the pandemic. Back in mid-April, she had already made 117 masks for her community.
In Delran, siblings Christopher and Kiley Wolf (rising fourth and third graders, respectively) decided to take part in their own triathlon around their neighborhood while raising money for people like their aunt, a nurse. The Wolfs (Wolves?) swam, biked, and ran their way to $1,650 in donations they used to buy lunches for first responders at two area hospitals.
It’s refreshing to see the real difference teens and children have been making during a trying time. Sure their world view isn’t as advanced as that of adults, but more often than not, I think we can look at their words and actions and learn a thing or two.
They believe in learning, improving themselves and helping others. They are open-minded and friendly, without bias or judgment. They don’t see skin color or gender or sexual orientation. They’re fun to talk to, frankly, and may just have a better handle on things than us older folks.
Whether you’re paying attention or not, kids of all ages are shining a light during this dark period and as a result, making me feel confident that our country is in good hands moving forward.
Dispatches from Home is a new weekly column from Sun Newspapers. The smart and safe COVID-19 isolations have surely left us all a little stir crazy. Each week, Ryan Lawrence will offer some ideas to keep you busy, entertained — sometime both — or draw on personal experiences of surviving and celebrating life during a pandemic.