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The year in review: Looking back in Berlin

After a year of COVID, Berlin has settled into a new sense of normalcy. As vaccines became more widely available, the town celebrated with different events. In March, the Berlin Farmers Market held its first community day. The family friendly event featured performances by the local guitar duo SweetSpot along with vendors and representatives from local businesses and organizations.

“ … Everybody had a rough 2020, with COVID and everything being shut down and not being able to socialize,” explained Jenna Sullivan, Berlin Farmers Market manager. “Just being around family and friends and the community, we thought it’d be a good time to all come together.”

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A walk for freedom 

The Downtown Berlin Revitalization Corps (DBRC) held its first Strawberry Festival in May. Thanks to an update from Gov. Phil Murphy, the outdoor mask restriction was lifted for everyone, vaccinated or unvaccinated. The festival featured strawberry shortcakes, craft vendors, food trucks and live music.

It was around that time that the Inter-Community Celebration Association (ICCA) committee announced a Fourth of July parade had to be cancelled for the second consecutive year. Mayor Rick Miller addressed residents’ frustration about the announcement at a council meeting, where he explained the parade was not planned by the borough, but by the ICCA. 

“All these events are handled by outside groups,” the mayor said. “They have their own volunteers, their own decision-making processes, their own planning.”

In lieu of the cancelled parade, Berlin Borough resident and celebration association Vice President Jennifer Adair-Lafountaine decided to host a Freedom Walk for July 4, independent of the organization. 

On that day, Ann Michal Williams sang “God Bless America” and several families showed up in red, white and blue ready to walk the traditional parade route. Some brought bikes that were also decorated for the occasion.

Hundreds attended the Berlin Farmers Market in August to celebrate National Night Out, an event where the community can come together and get to know local police. The event’s attractions included live music, a demonstration by firefighters and EMS (EMS) and a car show.

The Greater Berlin Business and Professional Association (GBBPA) held its 10th annual fall festival in October, blocking off three streets and featuring a row of features that included a car show, a pet costume contest and performances by the Suitcase Murphy Band.

Upgrades on the way

During its May meeting, the Berlin council presented an annual budget that resulted in a tax increase of 1.5 cents, or $35.66 a year for the average assessed home value. After going through the budget line by line to look for potential cost savings, the proposed levy went from 2.1 cents to the final 1.5 cents. Council also chose to opt out of the state ordinance on cannabis regulations that allows the town to have more time to decide on related ordinances rather than opting for the state’s five-year plan.

Berlin has physical upgrades during the year. In June, the mayor announced that Bel-Air Playground on Joans Lane would get new equipment and see improvements in the summer and fall. White Horse Pike and several other roads in town were also to be resurfaced. The intersection of Rondon and Pineview avenues also got upgrades, including the removal and replacement of sidewalks, curbs and driveway aprons. 

In November, Councilman Len Badolato shared that after two years and seven months, a traffic-calming proposal with the Department of Transportation had been approved. Goals include creating shoulders on the roads specifically for parking and upgrading crosswalks at Broad Street and Thackara Avenue. 

The plan to revitalize the old Kmart area continued to make progress; an entertainment facility is slated to open next spring. 

In October, members of the Berlin Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and other volunteers celebrated the completion of a four-year renovation at the historic James T. Dill House and the attainment of a $180,000 funding goal. The house was saved from demolition in 2017 by the commission Chair Christina Hoffmann. After a few months of discussion with the builder, an agreement was reached for two new buildings on the property and the donation of Dill House land to the borough for $1. Renovations included a partial roof replacement and a new electric system.

In the same month, resident Alysia Mackenzie was commissioned to paint a new mural on the fence at Marie Fleche Library as part of the DBRC’s mural initiative.

Incumbents Jake Miller and Patricia Cummings renewed their seats on the Berlin Borough council in November. The Berlin Community School Board of Education elected Alison Moyer, Jeanine Foster and incumbent Brandy Titus to serve in 2022. Eastern Regional High School’s incumbents Robert Campbell and Veronica Parker also renewed their terms.

At the monthly council meeting in November, residents came out in force to protest the potential closure of the McClellan Avenue At-Grade Railroad Crossing by the NJ Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and the NJ Turnpike Authority (NJTA). The news came as a surprise to residents, members of council and the mayor, who had been informed of the move after a resident saw representatives from NJDOT and NJTA counting cars in October. During the November session, Miller explained that emails had been sent to the former clerk and no one knew about the potential closure until October. Miller connected with NJDOT representatives on Nov. 8, and the borough began the formal process of opposing the closure. 

If closed, the railway would be uncrossable by car, bikes or walkers. Residents argued that a closure would separate one side of the town from the other and create inconvenience in transportation. The protest effort is ongoing.

Better days for learning?

The Berlin Borough School District’s Board of Education swore in three members at its annual reorganization meeting in January. Jocelyn Lewis was reelected, along with Joshua Zagorski and Sue Embrey, who won her seat on the board as a write-in candidate after receiving 38 votes in November. 

Lewis was promptly reelected to serve as president and Rebecca Holland will serve as vice president. 

Eastern Regional High School’s annual reorganization meeting in January was held via YouTube. Elena Chow and Robert Paul were both reelected to represent Voorhees and Lisa Asare was sworn in to represent Berlin. 

In late January, the Berlin Community School reopened for five-day, in-person learning after having switched to 100 percent remote learning in October. Unlike Eastern, which split in person students into cohorts, Berlin Community School allowed its students to learn five days a week in person, as outlined in the July reopening plan.

At Eastern, Superintendent Robert Cloutier reported during the board of education’s first meeting in the new year that more than 70 percent of parents within the district had their children enrolled in 100 percent remote learning. Students who attended in person were part of a cohort that went twice a week, with Wednesday remaining an asynchronous day for all. 

Eastern held its first COVID vaccine clinic in April, when 150 students and family members took a trip to the Burlington County Mega Vaccine site to get shots. As more students became eligible, both Eastern and Berlin Community School  offered more vaccine opportunities.

Eastern’s theater program returned in May bigger and brighter than ever as  “Seussical” was performed at McAleer Stadium. The show was performed three times, and relied on natural lighting to set the stage rather than programmable lights. While other local schools opted for livestreaming or limited, in person audiences, Eastern Musical Director Gregg Molotsky chose to move the musical outdoors to be as close to a school performance as possible. 

Eastern also revealed new capital projects that include replacing four HVAC units, tennis courts, upgrading the security system and replacing one hot water boiler.

The unusual year for the Class of 2021 was recognized and celebrated in June, with an in person ceremony that was also livestreamed.

“Yours is a story of firsts,” said guidance counselor Jason Susko, addressing the 2021 grads. ”Yours was the first class that didn’t have a junior prom. You didn’t have some of the same events that graduating classes that preceded you had, but that will not be your story.” 

The commencement made national headlines after Valedictorian Bryce Dershem’s mic was cut off as he talked about coming out as queer, a move he claimed was intentional. Sound engineer Joe Werner told the media that he was instructed to cut the mic when signaled by Principal Robert Tull, but an investigation confirmed there was not enough evidence to confirm or deny that.

Following the interruption and with the encouragement of his classmates, Dershem continued to recite his unapproved speech about self-discovery, mental health and the importance of graduates believing in people as well as themselves. 

In September, students at Eastern returned to five day, in person learning, while abiding by Gov. Murphy’s mask mandate for all students, staff and visitors. That sparked backlash and debate at some Berlin Community School board of education meetings, as some parents pushed to make masks optional. Both school districts remained firm in their decision to abide by the guidelines. 

Around the same time, Berlin Community School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Campisi presented and addressed concerns surrounding the new gifted program and how students will be identified as gifted. Students already in the program were grandfathered in, but moving forward, they will also be subject to a new multi-measure matrix.

In October, the district gave an update on its five year strategic plan that included a job fair in January to find qualified candidates and diversify staff, an effort to communicate more efficiently with the community through newsletters and office hours and an agreement to seek more student perspectives.

The people who made news

Berlin residents found all kinds of ways to give back to the community in 2021:  

Residents Robin Wickham and Mike Bialecki have picked up trash on roadsides for three years, and in March, they invited the community to join them. 

West Berlin resident Vicky Olson organized and donated 100 Easter baskets for senior residents at ManorCare in Voorhees in April. Olson has since expanded and launched another gift basket campaign for the holidays to include Taunton Run Village in Berlin.

In June, West Berlin resident and Berlin employee Allie Steinbach volunteered with others from the nonprofit For the Love of Pete’s Pantry to give free haircuts at Aviator Park in Philadelphia. She hoped to continue the effort in August. 

In July, the Operation Yellow Ribbon nonprofit welcomed home Berlin resident and Navy Lt. Billy Beasley in “rock star fashion” with a motorcade made up of several patriotic bike groups. . Beasley was deployed for seven months in the Middle East prior to his return.

“I’m one of the lucky ones getting a homecoming like this,” he acknowledged. “I know there are people in other wars that are just coming home now. Thank you for making me feel special.”

In August, Berlin residents and twins Julia and Jessica Bonamassa raised awareness of auto accessibility by participating in the first stop of the Automotive Mobility Awareness Tour at Moss Rehabilitation Center in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, where they showcased their wheelchair-accessible van. 

“We didn’t think we would be able to [drive], honestly,” Jessica said. “If we didn’t hear about any of this (donations by the NJ Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, MobilityWorks and the Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund helped pay for the van), it would have been very hopeless. If we weren’t lucky, unless we did our own research, we really wouldn’t have known.”

Winners despite COVID

Athletic teams had one thing in common in 2021: the challenges of returning to play after COVID. 

In March, Eastern Regional High School’s bowling teams battled COVID challenges and defended the 2020 NJSIAA Boys Bowling INdividual Championships. The boys team finished 7-2-1 on the year and second in the American Division of the Olympic Conference, while the girls continued at the top of their division for the ninth consecutive year after finishing 9-1 in the regular season.

Eastern senior Ryleigh Heck notched her 200th career goal with the Vikings in September, becoming only the seventh high-school player in the U.S. to reach that mark and the second in New Jersey. 

Eastern’s soccer team was consistently ranked near the top at the state and national levels in recent years, and they again came out on top in October as Olympic Conference Champions, the eighth time in nine years.

Meanwhile, at Berlin Community School, the Lady Lions soccer team celebrated its victory after winning the South Jersey Middle School Soccer League championship in October, following a year-long pause caused by COVID. 

“We lost to Stratford in the finals two years ago, so some of my upperclassmen now were underclassmen then, and we kept saying, ‘The comeback is stronger than the setback,’” recalled Lady Lions coach Michael Ford. 

 

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