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Super Heroes: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s … a Volunteer!

by Allie Harcharek and Shannon Caulfield; Photo by Jeff Fusco

We present the people and groups chosen as Suburban Family’s Citizens of the Year and hope they inspire you as much as they inspired us. Anyone can make a difference in this world, but it does take a few special qualities: a caring heart, a good attitude and a giving spirit. Whether granting the wishes of others, volunteering for a service project, organizing a food drive for local shelters, or leading a group of peers and neighbors to better the community, our local heroes come in all sizes.

A select few were photographed on location at Challenge Grove Park in Cherry Hill, the location of “Build Jake’s Place,” the boundless playground created in memory of a local boy.

David Girgenti
Cherry Hill
He launched the charitable social networking website, WishUponAHero.com, in 2007, with the vision to connect individuals in need with the everyday people who can help them. His motto? “Everyone has a wish. Anyone can be a hero.” To date, the Cherry Hill resident and his nonprofit have granted nearly 90,000 wishes (that number increases each day), ranging from letters for overseas soldiers to a wish for a kidney donation, and were designated the official philanthropic partner of Rowan University last year. On April 28, the foundation will host its first-ever indoor cycling fundraiser event, to raise money and awareness across the country, and eventually grant way more wishes.

Betty Mi-Yung Chung
Cherry Hill
Mi-Yung Chung, a fourth-year student at the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine, was honored with the prestigious American Medical Association Foundation’s 2011 Leadership Award, one of just 24 medical students in the nation who received the award. Chung is a Schweitzer Fellow and active leader among student associations, including the UMDNJ student council vice president; she also volunteers with Hep B Free Philly, and was instrumental in launching Hepatitis B education, screening and vaccination programs in the area.

Douglass Sell
Moorestown
Sell represents his town as Moorestown’s 59th Annual Citizen of the Year award recipient, for various ongoing charitable endeavors. He’s donated time to organizations like the First United Methodist Church’s Adult Choir and Mission Committee, Moorestown School Board, United Way of Burlington County, Burlington County Council of the Boy Scouts of America and Moorestown’s Low and Moderate-Income Housing Committee.

Ally Haas
Moorestown
Hass, a fourth grader at Our Lady of Good Counsel School, decided that instead of having a birthday party last year, she would gather friends and family together to draw attention to the plight of families in need, asking for charity donations in lieu of presents. The result was a $6,000 donation to Wish Upon A Hero in 2011. This year, she held another charity birthday party at A-Loft with the hopes of raising even more for the charity…and collected $7,500!

Cheryl and Howard Hassman
Moorestown
Over the years, the Hassman have led major fundraising to help gather books, computers and learning materials specifically for children with special needs and autism, through their involvement with the Devereux Foundation. Thanks to their efforts in 2011, the pair were recognized by Gov. Chris Christie, and in April at the Devereux New Jersey Seventh Annual Dinner Dance and Auction, for the commitments they have made to help autism awareness and research in the area.

Mary Helen Ranieri
Haddonfield
Ranieri is the executive director of the nonprofit Canuso Foundation and its separate division, Babe’s Kids, which encourages local youth to connect with other children who have cancer, disabilities or other serious illnesses. Ranieri’s hands-on approach to the family-run foundation is apparent in all the events, from the teens’ dodgeball tournament or Babe’s Bash charity gala to the annual “Chicken Runs at Midnight” event, planned for May 4.

Barbara Casey
Medford
A longtime leader, Casey was recognized for years of volunteer work and dedication as a board of directors’ member with the Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey. She received a volunteer award in July at a recognition brunch hosted by the Girl Scouts, as thanks for her hard work.

Kate Cummings and Joe Nasto
Pennsauken
As parents, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than the loss of a child. But this local couple turned their hardship into a long-lasting contribution to the community, touching the lives of many families across the area. After their son Jake passed away from complications of a rare congenital heart defect in 2007, Kate and Joe, along with family, friends and community leaders, formed “Build Jake’s Place” in his honor, with the vision to create “boundless playgrounds” where kids of all abilities could play together. The first playground opened in October at Challenge Grove Park in Cherry Hill, now a bustling hot-spot for Saturday morning playtime, with colorful, interactive elements and joyful structures built with every child in mind.

Michael Giordano and Andrew Weiner
South Jersey
These men have been making a difference as part of Angel Flights Northeast, a nonprofit organization arranging free flights for critically-ill patients who cannot afford their own transportation. Giordano, a pilot for 16 years, and Weiner, the owner of the Cross Keys Airport in Williamstown, fly together in a small private plane, coordinating dozens of flights to personally bring patients to and from distant hospitals all along the East Coast, with passengers varying from cancer patients to a lung transplant recipient.

Jasmine Dippner Marshall
Haddonfield
The National Liberty Museum’s Young Heroes Award was bestowed upon this Haddonfield Memorial High School student, for a project she completed last summer with the Center for Family Services to help teens prevent sexual and dating violence. Marshall underwent Green Dot intervention training and created an informative public service announcement, presenting a lesson on the importance of bystander intervention at an event for more than 100 people.

Betsy Anderson
Haddonfield
Haddonfield’s own mayor selected Betsy Anderson, a retired office manager and local volunteer, among dozens of other candidates to be the town’s 2012 Citizen of the Year. Anderson is a fixture in the community, having volunteered with a long list of organizations, including the Friends of Haddonfield Library, Gardening Club, The Haddon Fortnightly’s Women’s Club, and the town’s annual Holiday House Tour, which raised $17,000 last year to repair Haddonfield Memorial High School aging auditorium.

Anna, Grace and Abigail Buss
Moorestown
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Buss girls—Anna, 12; Grace, 8; and Abigail, 5—of Moorestown came to fully grasp the concept of homelessness. With their parents, they were volunteering for the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which hosts homeless families at various local churches for a week at a time.
Grace asked when the families would be going home, only to be informed that they had no homes to go to. So, she and her sisters—with help from their parents—founded Live Civilly, a homegrown organization devoted to combating hunger.
The girls have organized several initiatives, including collecting more than 600 pounds of canned goods last summer. They’re so involved, in fact, that immediately after our photoshoot, the family went to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity!

Shannon Hudak
Washington Township
This eco-minded third grader at Bells Elementary was inspired to make her school “greener,” and so she organized a “Go Green Day” with her peers last month. She led a clean-up with fellow students at recess, armed with garbage bags and plastic gloves, to pick up litter and beautify the school’s playground. Hudak encouraged students to do a similar clean-up last school year, but is now organizing it as a monthly event.

Stefania Shamet
Marlton
Her efforts to further clean water initiatives resulted in the Edward T. “Red” Heinen Wetlands Award, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most prestigious award, for her work and direction on sensitive water and wetlands preservation issues. Shamet has been working with the EPA for more than 14 years, dedicating her efforts to many causes, including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Kelly Adams and Kim Tamney
Mount Laurel
These women founded the Kaleidoscope Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program, designed specifically for children with special needs, ranging from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy to autism spectrum disorders. The program was developed to “foster independence, strength and growth in the minds and bodies of individuals with disabilities” and provides riding lessons that really make a difference.

Steven Bollar
Mount Laurel
When he’s not serving as principal of Hartford School in Mount Laurel, Bollar slips into his alter ego, Stand Tall Steve, a motivational speaker with a motto that “When you stand tall, you don’t think small!” This out-of-the-box educator offers a mix of humor, energy and practical solutions to inspire his students. He is also a board member of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation South Jersey Chapter as well as the Burlington County Principals and Supervisors Association.

Victoria Draper
Washington Township
This 16-year-old former Miss New Jersey High School winner founded The Rose Petal, a community service project collecting prom dresses for girls in need. Draper collected 250 donated prom gowns this year and has been giving them away to young women through open houses and a Facebook page, in preparation of prom season.

Gwen DeVera
Voorhees
The Voorhees Breakfast Rotary Club annually recognizes upstanding citizens in the community, honoring them for leadership, professional success or charity endeavors. This year, DeVera, vice-chairwoman of the Camden County Human Relations Commission and board member on the Voorhees Cultural and Diversity Committee, was named Person of the Year for her efforts to help the local Asian-American community. In addition to her duties on both diversity boards, DeVera, a native of the Philippines, has been instrumental in teaching fellow immigrants about registering to vote, and participates in the annual Voorhees International Day focusing on global culture, food, dress and religions.

Van Zant Elementary School
Marlton
Van Zant Elementary School’s student council came together to make the holiday season a bit warmer for our soldiers overseas. The students shared in the Wounded Warrior Project, a national organization that seeks to honor and empower men and women with military service-connected injuries. Students from kindergarten through fifth grade stayed after school to create many blankets and thoughtful cards, distributing them via Col. Kate Zentar, an active military representative for the project.

Tiel Hardwick
Medford Lakes
Hardwick, a Shawnee senior, was granted the President's Volunteer Service Award, a national recognition awarded by President Barack Obama to teens who contribute significant amounts of time to serve their community and country. Hardwick created Medford Lakes' seasonal “Movie in the Park” night as a free drug- and alcohol-free event for families and young people; she also volunteers at a soup kitchen, has organized toy and clothing drives and teaches Sunday School at her church.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 1 (March, 2012).
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