Medford’s 2020 in review

The year brought struggles, but Medford was still able to move forward

Like everywhere else in the world, 2020 was a whirlwind year for Medford. Despite struggles imposed by COVID-19, the township found ways to adapt, create and move forward.

Nationwide racial justice protests inspired Medford residents to connect with the township’s minority residents, neighbors rallied around each other during the pandemic and the area’s artists made music and took photographs during one of the most difficult years in recent history. 

As we get ready to say goodbye to 2020, here’s a look at some of the year’s top stories:

COVID-19 

In mid-March, the world shut down to protect people from the pandemic. In Medford, hospitals, libraries, schools and more limited in-person use.

The pandemic has forced health systems like Jefferson Health and Virtua Health to forbid visitors in the main hospitals and units, unless an exception is made. Jefferson Health started curtailing its elective surgeries on March 13.

“Virtua’s request to the public is that they look for ways to help ease the burden of the health care workers in their lives,” noted Dr. John Matsinger, chief operating officer at Virtua Health. “This could be volunteering to provide child care, preparing meals, or simply sending a message of appreciation for the sacrifices they make every day.”

The early days of the pandemic created inventory shortages for most supermarkets and general stores. Panic buying made essentials like toilet paper, disinfectants and hand sanitizer nearly impossible to purchase

Murphy’s Markets couldn’t stock those items fast enough, running into shortages from suppliers focused more on stocking hospitals, governments and other essential organizations.

“We have to pull together in times of need,” said Edward Tamburo Jr., a ShopRite of Medford customer. “I don’t care about your political views, religion — if you need toilet paper, I will give it to you. We’ve got to come together.”

Schools

Medford Township Public Schools closed for in-person instruction on March 13, while Shawnee High School did so on March 16. 

All schools in Medford continue to offer a hybrid system, allowing students to learn in-person or remotely from home. Despite the unprecedented shake-up of the school year, Medford’s schools have found ways to stay connected with faculty, staff and students.

On July 16 and 17, Shawnee honored its 2020 graduates with three socially-distanced graduation events. Valedictorian Rebecca Leavens used the time she spent remote learning to focus on her relationships with family and friends. Her message to the class of 2020 encouraged graduates to focus on relationships with the people they meet rather than the achievements they earn.

“‘Go change the world — or don’t,’” Leavens’ speech read. “‘Be extraordinary — or not. I don’t care; just find people that mean something to you and don’t sacrifice it for anything.’”

Shawnee High School itself celebrated a milestone: its 50th birthday. Despite the monumental shift in society caused by COVID, many of the traditions and memories at the school remain, said Assistant Principal Barbara Fuoco and physical education teacher Margaret Fanuorgakis.

Fuoco and Fanuorgakis shared that if the first round of students had created a 50-year time capsule, it would have contained a photo of the Renegade Tomahawk (the district has phased out Native American mascots since then); a sports jersey from one of the school’s first teams; the first bell schedule; memorabilia from academics, theatre and band; and the first graduation, which consisted entirely of students from Lenape.

Today’s time capsule, if opened 50 years from now in 2070, would look a little different.

“There would be a mask in there with Shawnee’s logo on the side,” Fanuorgakis noted.

Sports

With high school and recreational sports seasons cut short in the spring, athletes across Medford lost time to play and hone their skills. But COVID didn’t stop some of the township’s top teams from achieving victory in 2020.

In November, Shawnee’s boys soccer team won the school its first sectional championship in almost 15 years. 

The Renegades (10-1) defeated Cherry Hill East in the Southwest Group E championship game 2-0, showcasing both top-notch defense and superior ability to control the pace of a game.

Shawnee girls tennis played a near-perfect season, with 11 wins and one loss during regular-season games. The team lost its sectional championship game, but three of its team members, Mary Kate Clapperton, Ella Purfield and Samie Tepes, won Group 3 Honors.

“They’ve had a target on their back and they’ve played awesome,” coach Sarah Fitzgerald said of her girls. “Everyone wants to beat us, but they’ve risen to the challenge.”

Shawnee also awarded annual Jack Fox Sportsmanship Awards to two graduates, softball and basketball player Erin Florio, and soccer and track athlete Daniel Kaighn. 

The award’s namesake died in 2007 and the prize established in his memory honors Shawnee athletes who exemplify the highest qualities of an athlete. Both Florio and Kaighn were chosen by all of the coaches at Shawnee for being selfless on their teams and for each being one of the first to reach out to opponents when an injury or tough moment occurred.

“It means a lot for me to be a team player,” Kaighn shared in an email to The Sun. “The team is never going to achieve goals without teamwork and everyone being team players.

“You need to push each other to get better, and that’s how the team moves forward.”

South Jersey Sports Weekly and The Sun highlighted Gianna Marmo, a Shawnee field hockey player who suffered two ACL injuries but came back to the Renegades as a force to be reckoned with.

“I’m glad I was able to make a path for myself,” Marmo told The Sun. “Even with the injuries and all of the death that has happened (Marmo lost her father in grade school and both of her grandfathers have passed away, too). I think I’ve learned a lot from it.”

Medford Residents Make a Splash 

Medford residents have always found ways to succeed, and amid the pandemic, it was no different. This year, they made music, spread awareness and made COVID work for them.

In the spring, photographer Missie Jurick started creating “Portchtraits,” family photos taken within social distance in front of her subjects’ homes. 

Jurick’s work brought joy to her Medford Lakes community, and all proceeds from the photo shoots went to charities that helped families as they continued to struggle financially during the pandemic.

“As much anxiety and stress that’s going on, we have to remember that we are family and we’re all here for each other,” Jurick noted. “We can still laugh, and love and grow, and celebrate that; it will be the biggest reason to get us through.”

The band Honeyjar, made up of Shawnee graduates, used its newfound time to record and produce a 70s-inspired rock album. “Moonbeam,” the group’s first record, came out in December and original songs have been played on local radio stations. Lead singer Kayla Rae is a nurse fighting COVID, but she unwinds by creating with Honeyjar.

“I think the future for Honeyjar is definitely bright,” said keyboardist Adam Ackerman. “We’re not entirely sure what that looks like yet. Obviously, every day changes in the pandemic.”

Passion for their studies brought two Medford residents to places they never thought they’d go. Shawnee senior Steven Estacio spent his summer interning for NASA, where he learned how to use computer programs to track the spread of coronavirus and helped develop international space law.

He also developed a model spacecraft using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and presented findings to NASA and medical research experts.

“It was an honor and also surreal to talk to people who work on all of these programs,” Estacio recalled. 

Shawnee graduate Erin Hartman is also aiming for the stars, spending her quarantine in the United Kingdom, where she’s bringing awareness to sexual violence.

Hartman worked as an emergency room nurse in New York City during the pandemic before receiving a grant from Medford-Vincentown Rotary Club to continue her studies at England’s University of York.

“I think that devoting yourself to those who are in need or those who don’t have as much or to future generations can exist in your own backyard or can also exist halfway across the world,” Hartman noted. “It’s just this dedication to service, and to help someone else fulfill their own goals, their own human rights, their own sense of security.”

Hartman will use her education to help prevent sexual violence around the world.

Black Lives Matter

When the murder of George Floyd made global headlines this summer, Medford’s minority leaders staged their own protests.

Boaz Matlack, a 21-year-old activist from the township, stood alone on Route 70 in August with a Black Lives Matter sign. With his fist raised, Matlack’s solo protest garnered the attention of passers-by, who joined him in solidarity.

“It can be kind of lonely, and it helps that people are around you and have a similar mindset,” he said. “It’s a very conservative area where I live in Medford, and growing up here, I wish I knew of more people who were like-minded and more people who were willing to say Black lives matter  and were willing to call out the systemic injustice in America.”

Matlack organized more racial injustice protests in the suburbs and plans to continue his activism, even as national news coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement slows down.

Another Medford resident, Britani Raynor, started the Facebook group Empower Support Medford in June to bring awareness to racial injustice in the township.

Raynor’s group, which now has more than 500 members, was the starting point for a Black Lives Matter protest in Medford on June 10. Now, Empower Support Medford hopes to foster conversations about minority issues in the area with people who might not have had those discussions otherwise.

“People who believe that they are not ready to open their hearts and minds to the conversation of race,” Raynor firmly stated, “until they do that, there is not much I can do to change it. But we will be here with open arms when they are ready to have that conversation.”

Government

Medford’s leadership built the town  this year, literally, as construction projects took a front seat. The township broke ground on a new $8 million building that will house Medford Township offices and the Pinelands Branch Library by March, 2021.

Project planning and funding has been a nearly seven-year process that will end when the dirt settles and construction workers create the building’s foundation.

“It’s been a long process, but seeing our design, it’s going to be worth all of the effort it takes to put it in on something that’s the right property and building for many years to come,” said Mayor Charles Watson.

In October, Medford Township Council designated the Taunton Boulevard and Tuckerton Road intersection a “redevelopment district,” meaning some lots in the area will be removed, while others will be rezoned to fit the growth district and community commercial districts.

Permitted uses in the ordinance include micro-breweries and restaurants that offer sit-down, carry-out and takeout options. Drive-thru and fast food eateries are not permitted in the zoning district.

Despite the physical growth of the township, Medford’s taxes stayed stagnant for the eighth year in a row. 

“Our staff, and specifically Township Manager Kathy Burger, did a phenomenal job in keeping the budget at a zero tax increase for the eighth year in a row,” Watson noted. “We’re happy to present no increases in the taxes once again for our residents.”