Shamong’s 2020 year in review

Community steps up in face of COVID

The year 2020 was certainly unlike any other.

While the first two-and-a-half months started out, for many, with grandiose plans and hopes to fulfill a new “2020 vision,” none of us could have envisioned what would transpire in March.

The pandemic has irrevocably changed every person’s life and has given way to new difficulties for everyone. But despite the dark times that came with the virus, there were also moments of light as Shamong residents stepped up to help their friends, neighbors and those in need amid the pandemic.

As 2021 approaches, here’s a look back at the events that made headlines in 2020.

Educational Service Provider of Year

January got off to a strong start when Sue Johnson received formal word she was Seneca High School’s Educational Service Provider of the Year for 2020-2021. In her role as a guidance counselor, Johnson meets with all students in the 1,000-plus population high school whose last names begin with “S” through “Z” as they move through high school.

“What I love about it is that it’s different every day,” Johnson noted. “Sometimes we’re going to classrooms to talk to kids, sometimes it’s one on one, then it’s college and career planning. Then it’s also talking with kids and working through some of the personal stuff.”

With sixteen years on the job, Johnson knows how to interact with students and ways to get them to open up when they are unsure about conversation. 

“Usually, kids who are hurting want to talk,” she explained. “After the tears, they’re happy to get anything off of their chest.”

Recognition for Seneca

At the February Lenape Regional High School District Board of Education meeting, Seneca’s marching band was recognized for earning the title of 2019 U.S. Bands State Champion, Group IIIA. The Golden Eagles earned the highest score of 93.36, as well as titles for best color guard and visual effects. The band performed composer Key Poulan’s “Another Place, Another Time” on a competition stage in November 2019. 

Outgoing Principal Jeff Spector commended students for their achievement and noted their successes are one of the many things he favors about Seneca. “It was such an honor to work for a school district that allows for things like this, to take a  place that we’re going to honor tonight,” he said. “I’m very proud to be a member of this family.”

Soldier, son reunited 

An Indian Mills School student was treated to the surprise of a lifetime in February as a Read Across America assembly last month turned into something beyond literacy. SSgt. Eduardo Negron entered from backstage, much to the surprise of his son, Kanoa. His wife, Shawn Gogue-Negron, stood quietly by with children Jacob and Mikayla Kobler.

Eduardo was deployed in Kuwait for six months with the U.S. Air Force, serving as a dock controller. Originally from Bridgeport, Connecticut, the 37-year-old embraced his son with open arms, fighting tears of joy. Kanoa latched onto his dad as the reality set in he was home to stay.

“I brought it (this assembly) because Kanoa’s dad has been gone for six months,” Principal Nicole Moore explained to the children in attendance. “Can you imagine not seeing your dad August, September, October, November, December, January and now it’s February? And he wanted to surprise his son.”

Penalty for Shamong EMS

An anonymous tip to the state led to a proposed penalty against the Shamong EMS (operated within the Indian Mills Volunteer Fire Company).  The allegation was detailed in a Feb. 19 notice mailed to Fire and EMS Chief Dave Taylor, who is aided by Deputy Chief Joe Everman.

Details of the notice were made public on Feb. 27. Public Health Infrastructure, Laboratories & Emergency Preparedness Assistant Commissioner Christopher Neuwirth proposed in the notice a penalty of $108,000 against the company for allegedly responding to 90 EMS calls in 72 days with an unlicensed vehicle. Members subsequently dissented in an email. 

Seneca students share title 

Stand-up comedy, dance performances, singing and a bonus question wrapped up Seneca’s annual Mr. and Ms. Golden Eagle show on March 6, with the title bestowed on two seniors. Katie Curtis and Jacob Walters were crowned Ms. and Mr. Golden Eagle at the close of the show. They had been among seniors nominated by their teachers for the award, a group narrowed to 12.

Kudos from Lenape superintendent 

Following the outbreak of COVID, staff, employees and students of the Lenape Regional High School District were recognized by the superintendent as the coronavirus pandemic required the switch to virtual education. Superintendent Carol Birnbohm in March recognized the Burlington County Health Department’s coordination with county superintendents and the state Department of Education to order schools closed. 

“I’ve been well informed leading up to a potential close,” Birnbohm said. “We were prepared for the closure and made decisions every step of the way, moving up to the close with the guidance of the Burlington County Health Department.”

The superintendent thanked district administrators and central office staff for relaying information to students, teachers and the public — describing the district as “prepared.” “That is the word I would say for our district,” Birnbohm said. “That is because of the incredible people that work in our school district.”

Grocery delivery initiative

Shamong resident Renee Bierly received a list and hit the aisles of a supermarket in March, backed by a team of volunteers. Amid the  pandemic, Bierly was inspired to deliver groceries to people in the high-risk population. 

“I saw a story on the news where a woman walked through a parking lot and an elderly lady rolled her window down and she handed her (the woman) a $100 bill and asked for her to shop for her,” the Shamong resident said. “It brought me to tears because it was something we could get people doing everywhere.”

Bierly subsequently decided to offer grocery delivery to residents of both Shamong and Berlin. 

New budget adopted — virtually

April 7 marked a historic night for Shamong. The township committee adopted its municipal budget during a meeting held over a secure phone conference.

As it adjusted its way of doing things during the pandemic, the committee voted unanimously to adopt a 2020 municipal budget that did not call for a tax increase. The $3,467,976 total operating budget includes a 54-percent increase by the state to the Garden State Trust and a reduction in the township’s fund balance. 

Property owners with a home at an average assessed value of $307,499 would continue to pay $292.12 in taxes annually per $100 of assessed home value. That equates to zero increases in the .095-cent tax rate.

Budget with tax increase

The Shamong Township School District adopted a budget that called for an increase in local school taxes. The board of education adopted the $15,034,289 financial plan during its April 30 virtual meeting. Property owners in Shamong Township with a home at an average assessed valuation of $308,812 would see an annual increase of $93.19 to local school district taxes, the result of a 2 percent rate increase.

“The biggest drivers of our budget are salaries, health benefits and special education. It is true for most districts also,” said Laura Archer, the school’s business administrator. A decline in enrollment and restructuring in New Jersey resulted in a $266,467 loss of state funds. 

Seneca family aids food donations

After learning their own community had experienced a food shortage, Seneca educators banded together to give back to the community. The closure of schools because of COVID left Seneca’s in-school pantry for students in the Free Reduced Lunch program untouched, and a staffer wanted to ensure none of the food spoiled.

As remote learning continued with no end in sight, Assistant Principal Karen O’Neil boxed the goods and took them home. Donations of the food went to area pantries, but there was also a need in some families of Seneca students. Food was delivered to homes by school nurse Melinda Mehigan and guidance counselor Erica Maira. But it ran out as quickly as requests came.

“So many staff wanted to help, and we realized quickly the need was going to be big in the community, and it was only to grow as things got worse,” O’Neil noted.

A request for help from school coworkers was followed by a flood of donated food, toiletries and grocery store gift cards. Mehigan packed bags of food complete with at least one breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack option. Student council also got involved in the efforts.

Eighth grade diplomas

School Superintendent Christine Vespe announced during the May board of education meeting that the Burlington County Department of Health and state police had approved the district’s plan to hold a virtual promotion ceremony for Indian Mills Memorial School and to hand deliver diplomas to the middle school students’ homes. 

Plans included livestreaming the reading of graduates’ names. Social distancing restrictions in the state due to COVID continued to limit public gatherings. Schools shut their doors in early May for the rest of the year. Given the restrictions in Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders, Superintendent of the State Police Col. Patrick Callahan said virtual graduations could proceed in lieu of standard ones, leading to Shamong’s plans being approved. Volunteers from the staff visited homes the morning of June 12 — the school’s eighth grade graduation date — to present diplomas, yearbooks and other items to students’ families.

Scoreboards for Seneca sports

Five years of donations helped Seneca High School provide score boards for all of its varsity sports. During the May 13 Lenape Regional High School District board of education meeting, officials accepted $24,751 in donations. Outgoing Director of Athletics and Student Activities Jeff Spector said the scoreboards help promote equity in sports — a term the district promotes for its students. 

The previous board in the football stadium had technical difficulties and needed repairs. Students offered fundraising for a new one, to which Spector agreed, but other student athletes who played playoff games or other marquee events at the stadium sought scoreboards of their own.

“Starting with the Class of 2016, they donated around $6,000 toward the scoreboards,” Spector noted. “We had some parent donations, anonymous ones, field hockey, boys and girls lacrosse raised money … soccer and got the ball rolling.”

Tropical Storm Isaias 

Tropical Storm Isaias sped through Shamong Township on Aug. 4, taking down trees and power lines and leaving the township without power at the peak of Atlantic City Electric’s damage survey, said Emergency Management Coordinator John Lyons. The storm, which made landfall in North Carolina as a category one hurricane, barreled through the area until mid-afternoon. 

Shamong’s most common storm incident was large trees blown over by the storm that became entangled with wires and communication lines. On more rural roads, the electric company safely removes lumber before sending engineers out to restore power. The National Weather Service in Mount Holly reported peak wind gusts of 53 mph in Tabernacle.

New school district site

Two years of drafting blueprints, fundraising and construction came to an end on Sept. 15, as Indian Mills School Principal Nicole Moore cut the ribbon at the Play for All site on school grounds. New playground structures included a stabilized surfboard to encourage balance; a modified merry-go-round that, unlike in years past, limits the amount of children who can spin inside; a rope bridge and a climbing set for kids to practice coordination and others. 

Superintendent Christine Vespe thanked organizations within the district, the board of education and township officials for formulating plans beginning in October of 2018. Fundraising to offset building costs began in January the following year and district employees worked over the summer to install equipment and run trials for safety and mobility. 

“I like to see the kids on the spinning one (merry-go-round) because you hear them excited and see them excited,” said Ali Ferrell, head of the Indian Mills Home and School Association, which coordinated many of the fundraising events. 

Youth sports return to Shamong 

As quarantining came to an end in the fall, Shamong youth sports returned full swing. The fall’s roundup of sports offered by the Indian Mills Athletic Association, the governing body for activities, remained the same as the previous year, but with the addition of baseball and softball. The two sports’ spring seasons were butchered as COVID  cases spiked in Burlington County. 

The association’s soccer programs saw about a dozen more families registering than in years past, especially those outside of Shamong. Teams planned to travel less to limit possible virus contacts. 

Scouts hike for hunger

Shamong’s Girl Scouts hiked nearly 500 miles for hunger this year.   Troop 24713’s fifth and seventh graders created the campaign, and for  every 50 miles the Scouts hiked, pledges donated nonperishable food items to Families Helping Families, the food pantry at Indian Mills School.

“We go hiking almost every weekend,” said Girl Scout Junior Hope Durham. “It’s really fun to get the miles and give back to the school and everything.”

In November, Troop 24713 donated about 700 food items to the pantry. “This far exceeded what we thought we were going to get,” said Stacey Boyler-Weller, a counselor at Indian Mills. “We weren’t getting a lot before, but we never really worry about it because something always works out.”

Their Hike for Hunger campaign took Troop 24713 on a walking tour of South Jersey, from Historic Smithville to Parker Preserve and the Ocean City boardwalk and bridge.