In the game of life, some kids stand out. They’ve got a winning attitude, and they’re not afraid to step up and show everyone just how awesome they are.  Take a look at some of SJ’s all-star kids who make us proud.

Andrew ReyesAndrew Reyes, 8

Playing at Augusta, home of the Masters Tournament, is a golfer’s dream – even if you’re only 8. In April, Andrew Reyes lived that dream in the first-ever Masters Drive Chip and Putt Championship. Though he wasn’t awarded a green jacket, he says the experience was the highlight of his young life.

“The best part was putting on the 18th green,” he says of the infamous last hole. “My dad wanted to step on it, but he wasn’t allowed.”

Even as a 3-year-old playing with a plastic golf club, Andrew took to the sport. When he went to the driving range with his dad to hit balls, a simple father and son outing became much more. He started formal lessons at age 5 and began racking up wins in tournaments. The third grader at Samuel Mickle Elementary School in Mickleton is a two-time U.S. Kids Golf Philadelphia Tour Player of the Year.

To qualify for Augusta, Andrew first won a tournament in Washington, D.C., and then a regional competition in Virginia. Out of 17,000 kid golfers nationwide, he was one of 88 to be invited to test his skills at Augusta and one of just 11 in his 7-to-9 age group.

Andrew’s keen concentration, calm demeanor and willingness to practice over and over again make him a natural at the intense sport. With snow on the ground and frigid temperatures this past winter, he spent most days practicing indoors on a golf simulator that hooks up to his laptop.

When he isn’t playing golf, Andrew’s active in his church and plays travel baseball on the South Jersey Bulls. He says gym, math and science are his favorite subjects in school.

But don’t count out golf as a career goal – Andrew has lofty ambitions. “I want to be on the Arizona State University golf team in college and be a professional golfer,” he says. “I want to play on the Merion golf course and at Pine Valley.”

Ciara DemarestCiara Demarest, 8

Ciara Demarest stands out among her third-grade class at Kingdom Charter School of Leadership in Blackwood for lots of reasons. To begin with, she’s 5-foot-1 – a head taller than her peers. She is also strong – very strong. The Sicklerville resident holds the national record for shot put, throwing a four-pound shot almost 23 feet. She is set to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics next month.

This is Ciara’s second visit to the Junior Olympics, earning first-place honors there and in every meet she competed in this year.

“It feels really nice to be number-one in the country,” she says.

The young athlete became interested in the sport when her dad, a shot putter himself, encouraged her to join a track club to have fun and get in shape. Already focused and detail-oriented, she immediately took to shot put. A true love of the sport and practicing five days a week – even in the cold and snowy winter – have helped Ciara develop a successful technique.

“I think I’m good because I practice a lot, and I am strong,” she says. That focus and determination is evident in everything she does.

A straight-A student, Ciara is also proud of her job on her school’s safety patrol. At only 8, she definitely knows what she wants to achieve in her life – at least this year.

“I have personal goals,” she says. “Being number one again and getting the gold medal.”

Marissa Hacker, 17

Marissa Hacker gets her inspiration from her twin brother, Matthew, who has autism.

Marissa Hacker“The night before our 15th birthday, Matthew came home from camp hysterically crying because the kids were not including him in activities,” says the senior at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees. “He felt very lonely. That was the moment when I knew I wanted to start something for him.” Marissa then created the Fantastic Friends Social Group, where teens with special needs can enjoy a social outlet.

So far, she’s planned monthly gatherings, from visiting Adventure Aquarium to having an “American Idol” contestant meet with the group. This month, she will host her biggest event so far – a prom at the The Mansion in Voorhees. Through her work with Fantastic Friends, Marissa was named NJ’s National Child Awareness Youth Ambassador for 2013-14.

“The prom is for 100 local teens with special needs and 100 volunteers,” she says. “It’s Disney-themed because the values of love and acceptance are the same with Disney and our organization.”

Though she says she devotes 110 percent of her time to her organization, somehow Marissa also finds time to volunteer for other special needs organizations, including the Dubrow B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, ACHAD and Autism Speaks. She regularly attends and speaks at conferences relating to special needs. Marissa even ran a workshop for prom volunteers on how to work with teens with special needs.

Marissa is headed for Stockton College next fall to study speech pathology and audiology, but she remains fully devoted to Fantastic Friends. “I’m still going to plan events for our members, and I hope to start more chapters in other parts of New Jersey and throughout the country,” she says. “It makes me feel good to see this amazing community of loving and supportive people.”

Evan White, 17

Unlike most kids his age, Evan White is a money guru. He’s even written a book on the subject.

Evan WhiteWhen he was just 7 years old, Evan earned a dollar doing chores around the house. His parents’ rule was he could spend half, but he had to save the other half.

“I bought candy,” recalls the Eastern Regional High School junior. Over time, his savings grew and when he was 11, he bought his first stock, Coke. While that proved to be a very solid investment, it also fueled Evan’s interest in business.

For the last few summers he’s attended business camps at Columbia, Vanderbilt and Rutgers universities. At the Rutgers camp, he participated in a group project that won top honors and a coveted prize – iPads.

But before attending each camp, Evan researched extensively industry topics, taking notes along the way. At his father’s suggestion, he turned those notes into “Common Anomaly,” a book about the fundamental concepts of business and finance aimed at teens.

“The biggest mistake teens make with their money is not saving it,” he says. “They spend it immediately, not knowing they should save it and not knowing how to save it. If you don’t know the basics of how money works and how to budget, later in life you’re going to be in trouble.”

Beyond budgeting his money, Evan’s a whiz at budgeting his time. He’s president of the Key Club, a community volunteer organization; treasurer of his class for the third straight year; captain of the mock trial team; a member of the track team; treasurer of his school’s Habitat for Humanity club; plus he plays the trumpet in the marching band.

In his spare time, he creates financial models in Excel. “It’s for learning more about investment banking,” he says.

Evan plans to double major in finance and accounting when he gets to college. “I want to work in investment banking,” he says. “That’s my life goal.”

Joshua ToroJoshua Toro, 18

It’s not often you see one person who excels in science and the arts. But Josh Toro is proving both the left and right sides of his brain are super-charged and ready to go. The Moorestown High School senior will double major in physics and theater studies at Yale University this fall.

“Directly after my undergraduate studies at Yale,” Josh says, “I would like to go to their drama school and then move on to medical school. I would like to follow both career paths.”

Ambitious, yes, but not out of the question for the focused teen who has proven he can multitask. Once Josh’s fifth-grade math teacher turned him on to the piano, he was hooked and has stuck with it ever since. He also plays guitar and trumpet, and can sing and act. In fact, he recently released his first record, “Burn Out,” and has plans to record a six-song solo EP – a music industry term for a recording that is more than a single but less than a complete album – this spring.

Josh has a long resume of theater roles and was nominated for the prestigious Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award for acting in his high school production of “Legally Blonde.” Offstage, he has earned a third-degree black belt in karate, run track and played soccer for many years.

Josh’s medical inspiration came two summers ago when he volun-teered at CHOP. He worked in the radio station at the hospital, hosting shows broadcast into patient rooms and organizing playlists.

“When I wasn’t doing that, I would attend medical seminars presented by doctors,” he recalls. “I loved it and found myself going to seminars three or four times a week.”

Whether Josh finds himself on Broadway or in an operating room is anyone’s guess. “I know it’s a bit am-bitious,” he says. But that’s never stopped him before.

The newspaper Staff at Pemberton Township High School

Kylie Sposato, 18
Michael Thompson, 18
Samantha Gregory, 16

Sometimes greatness happens when you aren’t looking for it. Just ask Kylie Sposato, Michael Thompson and Samantha Gregory, journalists on their Pemberton Township High School’s newspaper, The Stinger. The newswriting trio was recently faced with a dilemma that even the most seasoned professional rarely experiences.

Kylie Sposato“It started when we were learning how to write columns in our journalism class,” recalls Kylie. “I didn’t even want to write it, but had to for a grade. I wrote about smoking in the bathrooms, because it’s an issue.”

The reluctant columnist ended up feeling good about what she had written and was eager to see it published in the school paper. Until it wasn’t. Pemberton Principal Ida Smith, who has prior review before the paper is published, squashed the story.“It was upsetting,” Kylie says.

She met with the principal without success. Over a four-month period she continued to move up the ladder of authority, first to the superintendent of schools, then the school board. The final decision handed down was if she interviewed Smith and rewrote the article with the administration’s perspective, she could re-submit the article. The new story eventually ran last month.

Lending support was co-staff member Michael, who also serves as student liaison to the board of education. Michael worked alongside Kylie during her protest and from their experience, the two wrote another article about school censorship. Their piece is slated to be published this month.

“That article,” says Michael, “was a response to the initial censorship.”

Meanwhile, Samantha noticed she too had been censored in the same issue that Kylie’s column had been removed from. Samantha’s article about the school’s athletic director leaving was published – only without two sentences she felt were key. One sentence mentioned that a full-time replacement hadn’t been hired yet, and the last sentence said the athletic director declined to comment for the story.

“I was baffled when I found out they removed my writing without my consent,” says Samantha, a sophomore. “I was upset because it was a news piece, and it’s standard journalism procedure to say a person declined an interview.”

The students agree they learned lessons through the process, though not all were positive. “You really can’t say whatever you want within the school,” Kylie says. “But I feel like we did some good. We fought back and made a difference.”

Alec Kazandjian, 10

When spunky, energetic Alec Kazandjian became lethargic, complaining of constant pain, his parents feared the worst. Unfortunately, their concerns were realized when Alec was diagnosed with leukemia last August. Despite grueling rounds of chemotherapy and many days spent in the hospital, Alec’s giving personality has remained a constant.

During his treatment at CHOP, Alec became sensitive to the other sick children – and caring staff – around him.

Alec Kazandjian“When I was first diagnosed, the Child Life staff and nurses at CHOP really helped cheer me up while I was in the hospital,” says Alec. “And then seeing the other kids at the hospital and clinic that have gone through it and came out OK makes me feel stronger, like I can get through this too. I hope that I can someday give other kids the strength to fight, too.”

Even while fighting his own battle, Alec set to work to make a difference in his small world. First, he brought in homemade cards and rainbow loom bracelets for the kids at CHOP. Then he started making bracelets to sell to the hospital staff and visitors. At one or two dollars a bracelet, he raised more than $50, which he donated to the Child Life staff.

“I was proud of myself for making money to help other kids,” says Alec.

Now in his fourth and toughest round of chemo, the fourth-grader at Springville Elementary is still making and selling bracelets in his neighborhood. He hopes that by early summer he will be in a maintenance phase and will be well enough to take part in this summer’s American Cancer Society Bike-a-thon.

“I hope they will one day find a cure,” he says, “so other kids will not have to go through this.”

June 2014
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