Williamstown Year in Review Part 4

Year brought COVID surprises but community spirit

Due to COVID-19, drive-by parades became the new way to celebrate birthdays across the country. Cindy Zimmerman (right), unfurls a police blanket for her grandfather, Sam Spera, who was celebrating his 97th birthday last Thursday. As part of Spera’s birthday celebration, Zimmerman organized a police drive-by parade and birthday card social media campaign where more than 150 residents mailed Spera a birthday card.

People in the news 

Before COVID-19 hit, Juniper Village resident Mary Borza was able to celebrate her milestone birthday surrounded by loved ones. But she celebrated a virtual 100th birthday on Feb. 16, donning a tiara and birthday sash and posing for photos with family and friends. About 100 people attended the celebration, which included Borza’s family and  fellow residents of The Village in Williamstown.

Another Williamstown resident was celebrated after her trials and tribulations helped her earn an historic honor. Candice Giunta was   elected New Jersey State President for Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society for students attending two-year colleges. Formerly a Williamstown resident and now living in Runnemede, Giunta is a 29-year-old married mother of three who had to overcome many obstacles to make it to college and become an influential member of the Rowan University of South Jersey (RCSJ) campus. During her campaign to become PTK’s New Jersey State President, Giunta opened up publicly about the darker moments of her life.  “It ended up being based on my life and trying to be real and genuine with everybody,” Giunta said about her campaign. “(I told myself), ‘I’m just going to be me and let them know who I am.’”

Hometown heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but one in particular  felt the need to help her community at just 9 years old. Monroe’s Gia Nelms celebrated her birthday on April 21, bringing the community together to help her fulfill a special wish: Rather than ask for presents, Nelms asked for donations of food and supplies for the Monroe Township Food Pantry at the Pfeiffer Community Center. The community responded in large numbers, with friends, family and neighbors donating enough to feed 30 families. Tia Parks, Gia’s mom, was already planning a surprise parade for Gia where family and friends would drive by their home on the girl’s birthday, and she thought it would be perfect to have parade participants also bring donation items.

“It truly was a collective effort of so many people,” Parks noted.

After COVID hit, birthday parades were the new way to celebrate family and friends from a safe distance. One lifelong Williamstown resident received the best parade he could have asked for on June 25. Sam Spera is a former chief of detectives with the Monroe police and was the recipient of more than 150 birthday cards, a police drive-by parade and dozens of smiles from family and friends during a special birthday celebration. For Spera, it was the perfect gift.

“I think it was a nice tribute,” said Spera, who moved into Juniper Village last year. Though guests couldn’t go inside to visit him there,   they still made sure Spera got the birthday bash he deserved.

Another young hometown hero did not let COVID stop her from continuing work on her own nonprofit. Rileigh Layton, a senior at Williamstown High School, has been donating school supplies to Williamstown students for seven years. Now, at 16, she has bought supplies for more than 800 children through her nonprofit, Rileigh’s Rainbows. 

Due to COVID-19, Layton’s fundraising events were put on hold this year, but she still received private donations to purchase supplies for the coming school year. “Each year we want to increase our numbers,” she said. Layton’s efforts have been recognized with a handful of awards, including the Kohl’s Care Scholarship and a Points of Light Award.

Another Williamstown based nonprofit hit its own milestone this year. 

Bianca’s Kids celebrated its 10th anniversary on Oct. 15 by granting wishes to a young boy in Connecticut in need of a bedroom makeover and a mom in desperate need of transportation. Over its 10 years, Bianca’s Kids has granted more than 25,000 wishes for children who suffer medically or financially. Savigliano wanted to book a road trip to Connecticut to give the boy his bedroom makeover, but COVID  caused that. According to Debbie Savigliano, president of Bianca’s, that won’t stop the nonprofit from connecting with the boy’s family online to walk them through renovations and donate supplies for the project. Bianca’s Kids this year also reached out to a Camden mom with six children, Jernica Quinones, whose 9-year-old daughter suffers from cerebral palsy and needs 24-hour care.