Photography by David Michael Howarth
Shot on location at WinterFest Ice Skating Rink at Cooper River Park

Sophia_DSC8730Sophia DeLuca, 12

Sophia DeLuca may be small, but she’s quick on her feet. The Marlton resident spends a good deal of her weekends throughout the year competing in track meets up and down the East Coast, racing – and most of the time, beating – some of the best runners in the country.

“You just have to commit to a lifestyle that doesn’t have a lot of free time,” DeLuca says. “It’s all about being on a schedule, eating well and staying focused.” DeLuca’s main events are the 1500 meter and 4×800 meter relay. She also runs the 400 and 800, and competes in the long jump –where she’s ranked in the top 20 nation-wide in her age bracket.

DeLuca has qualified for the Junior Olympics for the past two years, and in 2015 she took home a fifth-place medal in the 1500 and a gold for the 4×800 relay. Her relay team, made up of national champions, was 1.5 seconds short of breaking the record time set in 1996.

One of DeLuca’s personal goals is to break the record for the mile in her age group, running it in under 5 minutes. It’s a realistic goal – in practice this season she’s been clocking miles only a few seconds faster. Her longer-term ambitions are simple: Olympics or bust.

“I really want to go to the Olympics and get into a good college,” she says. “To do that I just have to keep it up – keep making it to the Junior Olympics and keep medaling. It’s something I’m really passionate about, because I just love the feeling I have when I’m running. It feels especially good when I’m winning. I can only explain it as feeling free.”

Coding-girlsJennifer Pena, 16
Rosemary Irizarry, 17
Ashley Pena, 17

At first glance, Camden’s technological dream team just looks like a normal group of girlfriends. And that’s what they were until a few years ago, when Ashley Pena began attending classes in coding at Hopeworks ‘N Camden, eventually convincing her younger sister Jennifer and their friend Rosemary Irizarry to join her.

The Camden natives took to Hopeworks’ tech classes quickly, mastering the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which allow data to be captured, stored and displayed on a map.

As part of their class, the girls took on a GIS mapping internship with American Water. The utility company asked the girls to walk around Camden’s Cramer Hill neighborhood and record the locations of fire hydrants, water meters, mains and blow-off valves. The girls then manipulated the data to appear on the mapping program, making it easy for the utility company to use.

“American Water liked our data so much they gave us another 57 miles to do,” Irizarry says. “We signed a contract and were paid by the hour. The whole project took us about three months to complete. I want to become an ecologist, and this really gave me an understanding of the environment around us. I learned a lot of things that will help with future jobs.”

The girls are now using their newly developed skills elsewhere in SJ, working with the Merchantville Water Commission to update the water main diagrams in their service area and teaching the adults at the company to use the same GIS system they used and developed for American Water in Camden.

“Doing this has made me feel very confident in myself,” Jennifer says. “In the beginning I think I had a hard time communicating and working as part of a team, but this has taught me to come together and help people.”

Ashley says the best part of the work is getting to talk to curious neighbors and passersby about the project.

“I loved walking the streets of Camden doing the mapping, with people coming up and asking us questions,” she says. “People were curious, and it helped me come out of my shell. On top of that, I think it’s something people can really see that represents the good happening in Camden. Not just for kids like us but for the city itself.”

Charlotte Rombach, 13 & Spencer Wetherington, 17

BalletCharlotte Rombach and Spencer Wetherington have had the same passion since they were just a few years old: ballet.

Both are students at the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia, and their abilities have earned them each opportunities to travel and dance on some seriously prestigious stages.

Rombach, a Medford resident, dances at least six days a week for several hours each day. Her hard work paid off last summer when she was chosen from thousands of dancers to join a select group for five weeks of training at New York City’s School of American Ballet, one of the most famous classical ballet schools in the world.

“It’s strange to think I’m so young, and I’ve done so much,” Rombach says. “I mean, living in New York alone at 13?

But I think I really opened up there. When I’m dancing, it’s this amazing feeling; like you’re at the top point of your life, dancing right on top of everything else, and if there’s something bad you can just let it go.”

Wetherington’s training took him away from home too – first to New York City, and then much further away. The Upper Deerfield native spent the summer of 2014 training at an intensive program hosted by the Bolshoi Ballet Academy – yet another one of the world’s most renowned ballet companies.

“At the end of the intensive, they give select students the opportunity to go to Moscow for two weeks to study at the Bolshoi and actually perform at the academy,” Wetherington says. “So I was selected and went to Russia. It was pretty nerve-wracking to say the least; it definitely required some mental toughness. But I won the opportunity to go again this year, which was very humbling.”

Wetherington says his ultimate dream isn’t to dance with a particular company, but to become the best dancer he can be, both artistically and technically.

“I have classes every day, ranging from one-hour classes to full days on the weekends,” he says. “I put in a lot of hours, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The first word that comes to mind when I think of dancing is ‘satisfaction.’ All the questions in your mind go away, and you just feel like this is what life is always supposed to be like.”

Nye Lindsey, 18

Growing up in Camden, Nye Lindsey felt like she never got much of a chance to enjoy her childhood.

“I come from a big household,” she says. “A lot of the time I was responsible for caring for my three younger siblings. It was a struggle at points, and I’d have to miss a week of school to help my mom out with my little sisters. It was fine for a while, but not everything was peaches and cream.”

nyeLindsey bounced from house to house, living with different family members while trying to keep up her grades and avoid trouble. She finally found a peaceful environment at UrbanPromise’s after-school program, where she quickly got involved with the organization’s clubs and summer camps.

“I feel like it was definitely a place I could call home, and where I felt normal,” Lindsey says. “I could just relax and be a teenager for once. I was surrounded by people who understand what I’ve been through and where I’m trying to go.”

Buoyed by the support she received at UrbanPromise, Lindsey set out to pay it forward, teaching classes in subjects ranging from art and cooking to basketball at UrbanPromise’s Camp Spirit and Camp Freedom over the summer.

She worked with her mentor, UrbanPromise Executive Director Jodina Hicks, to start girls’ groups at both summer camps. The groups participate in discussions and support activities designed to help the girls find forgiveness and move on from traumas and adversity they may have faced.

“It’s a time when teenage girls can come be themselves with other teenage girls,” Lindsey says. “It’s helped a lot of my camp kids come to terms with things that have hurt them in their lives.”

Presently, Lindsey is applying to colleges. She says it’s important that she set an example for the younger girls she works with, showing them it’s possible to achieve the dream of going away to college.

“My personal motto is, ‘I dare to lead, and I dare to dream,’” she says. “I feel like nothing is impossible. The words, ‘I can’t’ just aren’t really in my vocabulary.”

RabeelRabeel Ahmad, 17 & Hanny Ramadan, 17

Rabeel Ahmad and Hanny Ramadan, both seniors at Eastern High School in Voorhees, know it’s tough to be a teenager – and even tougher today to be a Muslim teenager.

“When you’re 16, 17, it’s a confusing time,” Ramadan says. “And identifying as a Muslim is also tough – we all have our internal struggles as to what being Muslim is. On top of that, there’s a lot of ‘Islamophobia,’ because whenever you see a story about terrorism, the words ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslim’ are attached to it. That perpetuates a lot of misinformation, fear and bigotry.”

In December, Ahmad, who is Pakistani, helped Ramadan and a few other friends reach out to mosques across the tri-state area, encouraging them to attend a peace rally along Broad Street in Philadelphia. The turnout was huge, but Ahmad says he noticed a distinct lack of teenagers.

“In our community we have elders who are working in mainstream America to spread the message that Islam is centered on peace, and then we have the youth,” Ahmad says. “But it seems we don’t have many teenagers who are speaking up and voicing what we need to portray, which is that Muslims are like us – normal American kids who denounce terrorism, and practice tolerance and acceptance.”

Videos from the rally have been widely shared on social media, and the friends are working to organize more local events that will bring together Muslim teens to educate their community about Islam.

Ramadan, who is Lebanese, and Ahmad also teamed up with a few Jewish students at their high school to start a Jewish Muslim Unity group (JMU), which meets biweekly at a member’s home to share discussions and stories.

“It’s important to talk about the things you have in common and the ways you differ,” Ramadan says. “There’s so much difference in my culture from Rabeel’s, but we also have so much in common. In Israel and Palestine, there’s a conflict about land – it’s not about religion. The gesture of Jews and Muslims hanging out is all we want, because miles across the world people couldn’t imagine Muslim and Jewish teens sitting together eating and laughing.”

stephanieStephanie Masapollo, 13

Halloween is Stephanie Masapollo’s favorite day of the year. So it’s understandable that she was upset when the holiday was postponed in 2012 after Superstorm Sandy. Her disappointment quickly turned to concern when she realized how many people had lost their homes and possessions – and their Halloween costumes.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, these kids don’t have costumes,’” she says. “So I reached out to all my friends and neighbors, and within three days I’d collected enough costumes to give to kids in Sea Isle City so they could go trick-or-treating.”

After the success of that first year, Masapollo knew she was on to something good. The Washington Township native distributed fliers and established drop-off locations to collect even more costumes to send to shelters and charitable organizations in Camden and elsewhere.

“The next year we started collecting in the beginning of October, and we got a lot,” she says. “Starting earlier gives people even more time to bring costumes. It’s gotten bigger and bigger every year. This year we had like $7,500 worth of costumes.”

Masapollo, who also sings and dances, says her dream is to makeit to Broadway. If that doesn’t work out, she plans to go into marketing and start her own business. She says she regularly receives praise from people who are impressed by her charitable spirit, but she doesn’t do it for the accolades.

“People randomly come up to me and say, ‘You’re doing a great thing,’ and that warms my heart,” she says.

“When I go to Camden and distribute the costumes to kids at shelters, they smile, and that’s good enough for me. I’m changing their day and their year, and making their Halloween happy, which is how it’s supposed to be. You’re only a kid for so long – you should be able to make the best of it.”

tommyTommy Wyatt, 17

Overbrook High School’s Tommy Wyatt knows how to please a crowd. He’s a fan favorite on the basketball court, and he’s charming audiences with a role in his school musical. But Wyatt’s an even bigger deal on the football field, where he’s led his team as quarterback in the last two seasons.

Despite a tough season overall for Overbrook’s football team, Wyatt has stood out – setting his own stellar stats even during a losing season. The 208-pound senior caught the eye of recruiters, and he committed to attend West Point next year, where it’s likely he’ll become the team’s starting quarterback as a freshman.

“In middle school, I played a lot of Xbox – always the college football game,” Wyatt says. “My dream was to be on that game, without having to create a new player. I wanted to be able to just select myself as a player – and now I might just get to do that.”

His prowess on the field isn’t the only thing recruiters liked about Wyatt. He’s also made the honor roll every marking period of high school, and the straight-A student plans to study chemical engineering.

“I’m setting myself up for the long run, not just for four years of college,” he says. “The dream is to play professional football, but the chances of going to the NFL are slim. But I really like chemistry, so if college football is it for me, I still have a path that I’m passionate about.”

In his limited free time, Wyatt volunteers at the Camden County Animal Shelter and works on philanthropic projects with Hope Chapel in Pine Hill. Though he’s used to being the center of attention – and knows that’s unlikely to change anytime soon – he’s calm under pressure.

“All eyes are on me at all times, and sometimes I do have to work to stay humble,” he admits. “But I’m usually pretty calm. I let my actions and achievements do the talking.”

February 2016
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