Much like other towns, the year in Voorhees was marked by strides with COVID, including long-awaited vaccinations. But the township made strides in other areas, too, in the schools and within the community.
May brought news that township officials had paved the way for new retail and housing by Main Street and between Somerdale and Evesham roads. Basketball and tennis facilities were upgraded at Kirkwood Park.
The township also settled the Fair Share Housing legal battle by agreeing to adapt preexisting units as well as new ones to provide affordable housing for seniors, low income families and people with special needs.
Allan Vogelson Library finished its $2 million in upgrades to the interior of the building, the first major renovation there since the library was built in 1969. Improvements included new furniture, bookshelves, technology, roof repairs, bathroom renovations and, as Branch Manager and Chief Librarian William Brahms put it, “Everything is new.”
The Voorhees Business Development Committee held its first job fair in June at the Voorhees Town Center, where more than 20 businesses set up booths to meet potential candidates.
“What we’ve determined is that what people really need right now are employees more than anything,” the committee’s Emily Morgan explained.
Voorhees approved cannabis businesses in towns and introduced two ordinances in July that set rules and regulations approved in later meetings. The township committee introduced an ordinance amending zoning to include 1,000 feet of distance from playgrounds but excluding highways.
Residents were also concerned that the agreed-upon 1,000 feet of distance from schools was not enough. Officials said the ordinance on that issue could undergo changes to take community concerns into consideration before second reading and public hearing.
Police and other local organizations came out to Connolly Park on Aug. 3 to celebrate National Night Out, an effort that allowed residents to get acquainted with officers.
Voorhees held its annual Halloween fall festival and Green Fair at the town center in October. Outside, the lawn was divided and transformed into a petting zoo and pumpkin patch.
Michelle Nocito and Jason Ravitz were reelected to the town committee in November after running unopposed. In the same month, the township received grants to create sidewalks from the town center to White Horse Road, as well as from the Ashland PATCO station along Evesham Road up to Burnt Mill Road and beyond, as part of a joint project with Cherry Hill, Somerdale and Lawnside.
The Spot teen space for after-school activities reopened in July after COVID shut it down in March 2020. The Spot partnered with Eastern Learning Academy for a once-monthly class to help further engage students.
Learning to live with COVID
The board of education swore in three new board members in January: Marissa Levy, Kelly Cosenza and Jason Brice. Eastern Regional High School’s incumbent board members Robert Campbell and Veronica Parker also renewed their terms.
Eastern’s annual reorganization meeting was held via YouTube. Elena Chow and Robert Paul were both reelected to represent the township and Lisa Asare was sworn in to represent Berlin.
At Eastern’s first board of education session in the new year, Superintendent Robert Cloutier reported that more than 70 percent of district parents 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 students.
Even so, Eastern offered different contingency plans for students whose parents believed it would be beneficial to attend four days a week in person, depending on how many students were interested in coming back. A hybrid learning model was eventually approved that had two cohorts of students alternating on Wednesday, along with a fully remote option.
In April, Eastern High School held its first COVID vaccine clinic, with 150 students and family members taking a trip to the Burlington County mega vaccine site. As more students became eligible for the shots, both Eastern and the school district expanded vaccine offerings.
Later in the month, the school district broke ground on a new kindergarten addition at Kresson Elementary School, where kindergarten will be centralized in 2022. The expansion includes adding 10 new classrooms, renovating five existing classrooms and creating a courtyard,
The board of education voted unanimously in May to remove Superintendent David Gentile and replace him with Acting Superintendent Michael Redfearn. The decision was not explained or elaborated on due to legal reasons and left some residents frustrated by the lack of transparency.
“At the end of the day, we are tasked with doing what is in the best interests of the district and for the children that we serve in this community,” the board wrote in a public memo.
The search for a new superintendent continues, and was a key point of discussion in the 2021 board of education elections.
Eastern High will see the results of new capital projects in the next school year, including replacement of four HVAC units, tennis courts, a security system upgrade and replacement of one hot water boiler.
As for the Class of 2021’s unusual year, graduation came in June, with an in person ceremony that was also livestreamed.
“Yours is a story of firsts,” said guidance counselor Jason Susko, addressing the 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 decision the graduate said was intentional. Sound engineer Joe Werner told the media that he was instructed to cut the mic upon a signal from Principal Robert Tull. The district neither confirmed nor denied that.
Following the interruption and with the encouragement of classmates, Dershem continued with his unapproved speech about self-discovery, mental health and the importance of graduates believing in people as well as themselves.
In September, students returned to five-day-a-week in person learning, while abiding by Gov. Phil Murphy’s mandate that all students, staff and visitors wear a mask in school. Some parents wanted to make masks optional in spite of the mandate, but the district remained firm in its decision to abide by the guidelines.
People in the news
Throughout the year, there were many people recognized for their contributions and impact on the community.
- The Voorhees Breakfast Rotary Club announced its 2020 Service Award winners in January: Helen Haley, Christine Blizzard-Wrobe, the Food Bank of South Jersey and 17-year-old Jordan Grabelle. Grabelle was later recognized for her nonprofit Love Letters for Literacy, which helps younger kids learn to read by creating and distributing literacy packets.
- In March, West Berlin resident Vicky Olson organized and donated 100 Easter baskets for senior residents at ManorCare in Voorhees.
- Eastern Regional High School graduate, Voorhees resident and musician Mia Giovina released her debut song, “Sirens,” which pays homage to her hometown. She has a large following on YouTube and TikTok.
- Eastern English teacher and Washington Township resident Jackie Mancinelli founded Start Healing Together, an organization to support educators who have experienced pregnancy loss.
- Shamong resident Mark Mignogne was honored by the Voorhees Rotary Club with its first Community Hero Award, for his efforts to disinfect classrooms nightly, sometimes for eight hours.
- Resident Michelle Cohen and other neighbors at Acorn Hill celebrated their neighborhood mailman, Cherry Hill resident John Gragilla, in August, with a surprise party on his last day before retirement.
- The late CEO of Lions Gate, Susan Love, was recognized by that community at its first annual golf classic in October. Event organizers Alison Platt-Tarnopol and Aimee Levin said Love had been an avid golfer, and that holding an intergenerational event with the community had been a dream of hers.
- In September, sisters Alex and Caitlyn Ketover donated 255 pairs of cleats to soccer clubs in need. While they toyed with the idea in 2020, they were able to bring it to life in 2021.
The lighter side
Throughout the year, the town has seen several young authors step up to the plate, including Jasmine Buzby, who created “Loving Physics,” a science book for kids to encourage learning, and Shreya Komar, who published “Brainiac: An Introduction to the Mind and Brain,” a nonfiction work for kids that involves mental health.
The Voorhees Arts Council celebrated several milestones, including expansion of its virtual museum, its reopening after being closed due to the pandemic and its third birthday in June.
Eastern High School presented its first outdoor spring musical, “Seussical,” at the McAleer Stadium, to allow as many people as possible to watch the show while COVID protocols were in place . When it premiered, students were able to perform without wearing masks.
The Animal Welfare Association held its second annual Rock and Rollover benefit concert in November to raise funds for new programs in the new year. Bands included Shaman: The Ultimate Santana Tribute Band, the Suitcase Murphy Band and Nothing Yet.
The sporting life
Like many towns, athletic teams in Voorhees faced challenges coming back from COVID, but they had their game faces on.
In March, Eastern Regional High School’s bowling team defended the 2020 NJSIAA Boys Bowling INdividual Championship, and the girls team was among the best in South Jersey.
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 field hockey team in September, becoming only the seventh high school player in the U.S. to reach such a feat, and the second in New Jersey.
In October, Eastern’s soccer team, consistently ranked high at the state and national levels, once again came out on top as Olympic Conference Champions for the eighth time in nine years.