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Photography by David Michael Howarth
Shot on location at The Gravity Vault in Voorhees

 

We’re always looking out for SJ kids who are doing extraordinary things – and it’s never too hard to find them. They’re the ones stepping into the spotlight, forging their own unique paths or making a difference in the lives of others – all while keeping up with homework.

 

SJ Boys Read!

Lucas 14, Shaan 14, Ajay 14, Connor 17 and Naveen 16

As kids, a group of Moorestown teens joined a reading club specifically for boys. Now, they’re running it.

SJ Boys Read! was started in 2008 by three high schoolers who, after seeing studies that showed boys had less interest in reading and lower reading test scores than girls, wanted to turn the tide – at least in South Jersey. Their mission was to inspire boys in kindergarten through 2nd grade to love reading. Twelve years later, looking at a leadership team comprised completely of former SJ Boys Read! attendees, it’s safe to say it worked.

“We have such great memories of SJ Boys Read! from when we were kids,” says Connor Megill. “We want to give other kids that same experience.”

What they loved as kids was that they didn’t just read books – the club was fun and interactive. They remember lightsaber noodles at a Star Wars-themed event or getting copies signed by local authors like ESPN reporter (and SJ Mag contributor) Sal Paolantonio and Dan Gutman.

“We spend a lot of time planning the activities, coordinating with the library and marketing the event,” says Naveen Shah. “We may not have as much time to spend with friends, but in the end it’s definitely worth it.”

At each event, SJ Boys Read! collects books for BookSmiles, a Cherry Hill nonprofit that distributes books to kids in underprivileged schools. One of the most important experiences, they say, is mentoring younger boys in the program.

“It’s a little bit like déjà vu, knowing that as a kid I used to look up to the boys I worked with here, and now boys are looking up to me the same way,” says Naveen.

Alongside Moorestown High School juniors Connor and Naveen, a team of 9th graders – Ajay Shah, Lucas Megill and Shaan Doshi – are learning the ropes.

“It’s definitely intimidating to think we’ll be running it soon,” says Shaan, a Moorestown Friends School student whose brother, Shailen, was a lead organizer when the group started. “We have some really big shoes to fill, but we’re excited to help keep this program going.”

 

The Arato Brothers

Gabe 16, Sean, 13 and Jay, 15

If New Jersey has shown the world anything, it’s that brothers who rock together, stay together (looking at you, Jonas Brothers), and the Arato Brothers are no different.

The Arato Brothers have been performing all over the East Coast and the Philippines, where their parents lived before coming to the United States, playing everything from four-hour performances at small house parties to three-song sets at world-wide competitions.

At the 2019 World Championship of Performing Arts in California, the siblings came home with stiff necks from their 8 medals and armfuls of trophies, not to mention the coveted title “Junior Grand Champion Vocal Group of the World.”

Seriously – of the world.

Gabe, Jay and Sean Arato enrolled in the School of Rock soon after moving to Cherry Hill from Philadelphia six years ago. When it came time to form a band, they didn’t have to look any further than right across the dinner table.

“Music is something that con­nects us as a family,” says Gabe, who plays the keyboard. “Having a band with your brothers is a huge advantage. It’s a lot easier to communicate, and it makes us better.”

The brothers spend an hour and a half every day practicing in their soundproof basement. With a practice stage, a lounge area and professional recording equipment, they might as well say, “Hello SJ Magazine, welcome to our crib.”

Practicing at home is one thing, but playing on stage is something else entirely. “It’s interesting having all these eyes on you,” says Sean, who plays drums. “I get really nervous, so the first seconds are always the hardest.”

But judging by their trophy shelf, they get over that stage fright pretty quickly “The awards, for us, are a testament to all the work we’ve put into this,” says Gabe. “It’s a landmark for how far we’ve come and where we can go next.”

And where is that exactly? “Well, we have school tomorrow,” jokes Gabe. “That’s the furthest we can see into the future right now.”

 

Bryanna, 14

If Lindenwold resident Bryana Turner asks you to buy Girl Scout cookies, ask for the Shortbreads. Trust us.

Since she was a Brownie, Bryana pictured herself as one of those girls on the cookie boxes – she’s that into scouting. Her moment came in 2018. Bryana was among a select group of scouts who attended a photoshoot held to choose the new faces of the cookie campaign. Still, she knew her chances were thin (like Thin Mints) because only a few girls would be selected.

“I was really nervous heading into the photoshoot, and I never thought they’d pick me,” says the Lindenwold High School freshman. “Then my face was on the box.”

She’s one of five girls from the Central and South Jersey scouting region featured on the newly redesigned cookie boxes. On the Shortbreads, you’ll see Bryana, with a camera in her hand, looking ready to spring into filming action. Before joining the Girl Scouts, she says, she never would have had the confidence to even put her sash in the ring.

“I was very shy as a kid,” says Bryana, who joined when she was 5. “I didn’t know how to put myself out there to make friends. Being a part of my troop allowed me to grow up with a strong sense of confidence and dignity.”

Now, she is unapologetic about setting – and tackling – ambitious goals, whether it be high-volume cookie sales or going after her dream career of becoming a criminal justice lawyer.

“Selling cookies isn’t just about handing out boxes,” she says. “I’ve learned leadership, money management, business ethics, people skills – all these things that I’ll need in the future.”

Riding this cookie-box craze, Bryana has been busy fielding interviews from the press and even appeared on two episodes of the Food Network’s new series, “Girl Scout Cookie Championship.” But this new media attention, she says, doesn’t mean she’s different than any other scout in South Jersey.

“It may be my face on the box, but I’m a representative of all Girl Scouts,” Bryana says. “The girls in my troop are my sisters, and I get to be a representative of the hard work and dedication we all put into this.”

 

Paul, 12

At first, no one thought much of Paul St. Pierre’s constant eye twitches. It wasn’t until it happened in the doctor’s office last year that anyone realized it was something more serious – seizures to be exact.

“From there, the seizures just took over,” says Paul, who was diagnosed with epilepsy. “Sometimes it was just twitches, and sometimes it was a lot worse.”

When they happened in school, no one knew what to do. That, he says, was really scary.

Thanks to Paul, that’s changing. In January, Governor Murphy signed “Paul’s Law,” requiring that all school employees be trained to recognize signs of seizures and know how to respond appropriately.

After he was diagnosed, his mom, Colleen Quinn, learned about a similar law in Texas, enacted after a 16-year-old girl tragically died in school after having a seizure. When Paul heard, he asked a question that would change everything: Shouldn’t New Jersey have that too?

The pair had no experience in local politics, but when they found that more than 12,000 kids in New Jersey have epilepsy, they knew they had to step up. Last year, they created “Paul’s Purple Warriors,” an epilepsy awareness organization. After hearing Paul interviewed on public radio, State Senator Jim Beech reached out to help.

“There are so many steps to getting a law passed, so it was really difficult and confusing sometimes,” Paul says. “When it finally made it to the State House, Senator Beech let me sit at his desk and press the button to vote ‘yes.’”

New Jersey is now the fifth state in the country to pass this type of legislation. While he considers himself retired from politics, Paul plans to continue helping kids with epilepsy through his nonprofit.

“Having epilepsy is really hard,” says Paul. “But I like that I can do something to help other kids.”

 

Marlton’s Alyssa Miles is a natural on the Nickelodeon red carpet interviewing stars the likes of Nick Cannon, Lisa Kudrow and Alec Baldwin. The 15-year-old actress, model, singer, YouTube sensation and beauty queen has been stealing the spotlight since she was just 2 years old.

“I fell completely in love with performing at an early age,” says Alyssa, “I watched ‘Annie’ and ‘Shirley Temple’ every day, joined theater companies and auditioned for everything that involved a camera or a stage.”

Alyssa has modeled for brands like Disney and American Eagle and has walked the catwalk in New York and Philadelphia Fashion Weeks. But in true Gen Z fashion, she shines on screen. Her YouTube videos brought in millions of views, including producers at Nickelodeon, who cast her in three web series for their YouTube channel.

“As I’m doing it, it doesn’t faze me about how many people are going to see it because I love acting and improving,” Alyssa says. “But when the video comes out a week later, I’m like, ‘How could a million people see this?’”

On the pageant stage, Alyssa, who has been crowned Miss East Coast USA and Miss New Jersey American Teenager, uses her platform to raise money and awareness for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a chronic gastrointestinal disorder she was diagnosed with in fourth grade.

After graduating high school, she may enter the Miss America pageant circuit, act in films, sing on Broadway, head to college for broadcast communications or find stardom on a social media platform.

“I’ve always seen performing,” says Alyssa, “as part of my future.”

 

Remember the first time you turned on your TV and saw your classmate in a psychiatric ward, showing all signs of being a dangerous psychopath?

No?

Students at Henry C. Beck Middle School in Cherry Hill sure took notice when 12-year-old Emma Hong stole the show on “New Amsterdam” this year. Her portrayal was a stark contrast to her usually bubbly, animated personality.

Emma has known she wanted to be an actress since she was 3 years old. She’s appeared on episodes of “Sesame Street,” “Madam Secretary” and “Saturday Night Live,” but her role on “New Amsterdam” may just be her break-out part. Her chilling performance as Juliet brought in more than a little social media buzz with established stars like “New Amsterdam” Producer Shaun Cassidy (a former child actor and singer) calling her an exceptional talent.

“This is the first time people are starting to recognize me, which is weird but really cool,” Emma says. “I keep seeing comments saying, ‘Who’s that girl?’ and I want to yell, ‘Me! I’m that girl!’”

Emma spends a lot of her time auditioning for TV shows, movies and even Broadway plays in New York. “I don’t take it hard when I don’t get cast in a part I really wanted,” Emma says. “Even just auditioning is a cool experience for me.”

Up next, Emma will appear in two episodes of “Little Voices,” a show produced by Sara Bareilles. She’s hoping to book a regular part on a TV show one day, but she’s still leaving plenty of time to crack open her books on set – this talented sixth grader wants to keep her options open.

“I’m not sure what I want to do in the future,” she says. “But right now, I’m having a lot of fun.”

March 2020
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