For the sixth straight year, we at The Press of Atlantic City are proud to bring you this year's outstanding high school leaders.
The Press' 2021 Young Leaders are a remarkable group who — like the previous class — have thrived despite the enormous challenges of a worldwide pandemic.
They are problem solvers, difference makers and change agents. They are coaches, volunteers and mentors.
They are engaged with the world and want to help make it — even just a little corner of it — better.
In the time since we started the Young Leaders program, we've always depended upon the help of our communities. This year, local high school teachers, guidance counselors and civic leaders and our business community once again answered that call. Likewise, each year, we ask members of our community leaders to serve as judges, a role ably filled by Laura Bishop, Darrell Edmonds, Carlo Favretto Jr., Stephanie Koch and Lori Pepenella.
In recognition of our young leaders' accomplishments, we publish their stories. We also provide a small scholarship award. The hard work is shared equally among our staff. Education Writer Claire Lowe, Staff Photographer Edward Lea and Photo Editor Gail Wilson all worked extensively to ensure this outstanding crop of high school seniors was showcased properly. Our staff writers and interns interviewed the students and wrote the stories that follow in these pages.
In the following pages, you'll read the stories of 25 remarkable teens. All have taken a different path to becoming a leader. But whatever their particular passion or skill they possess, they employed it with a selflessness aimed at helping lift others around them.
It's a good quality to have, particularly in these times.
Now, let them tell you, in their own words, what inspires them and how they are leading the next generation.
High School: Cape May County Technical High School
Hometown: Wildwood Crest
Parents: Frank and Lori Basile
Community/school activities: Volunteer at Special Olympics; Boardwalk Basketball Classic; Seagull Classic; Greater Wildwood Little League; Wildwood Crest Beach Cleanup and Recreation Department of Wildwood Crest; National Honor society; public address announcer at school; president of student council
Post-high school plans: Plans to attend Atlantic Cape Community College and study hospitality management. Also pursuing pilot training at Big Sky Aviation in Millville.
Which one of your activities or community service projects do you consider to be the most important?
I think what stands out to me is the amount of help I get to contribute to my community. A lot of the work I’ve done works with the community. And it is also just the teamwork, as well. I like working with other people, and it is just a really fun way to help other people.
To read more about Frank Basile click here.
High school: Atlantic County Institute of Technology
Hometown: Egg Harbor Township
Parents: Aleisha and Jason Benoit
Community/school activities: Student Advisory Board; Student Ambassador; Miss Night in Venice Charity Pageant contestant; South Jersey Field of Dreams; interned with the Jeff Van Drew campaign, interned with offices of Mazzeo and Armato; freshmen mentor; volunteered at Galloway Senior Center
Post-high school plans: Attend Stockton University and obtain a degree in political science, with a pre-law concentration
How did your experience in mock trial help to instill leadership qualities within you?
Some people can get really caught up over the bad things people say, but mock trial helped me take those things the judges say because these are real judges that I go in front of, and the next year I get better in the competition. I always use what they say to get better. I don’t get emotionally attached to it. I truly take it and become a better person because of it. I think that’s a big thing for a leader.
To read more about Camille Benoit click here.
Community/school activities: Member of Glassboro VFW; member of Pinelands National Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society; founding member of PRHS Mu Alpha Theta Math Honor Society; member of PRHS History, Math and Spanish clubs.
Post-high school plans: Study music industry at Rowan or Monmouth universities.
Why is it important that young people become leaders in their community? It’s important because you’re establishing bonds with each other, you’re helping everyone else, and I just firmly believe that what you put into this world is what you get back from it.
For more information on Donnah Campbell click here.
Community/school activities: Volunteer at Siloam Cemetery and Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society; treasurer for Vineland High School Honor Society Chapter and Tri-M Music Honor Society; Vineland High School academic team; principle trombonist in Rowan Youth Orchestra and Atlantic Youth Brass Band; head mentor of the band at Veterans Memorial Middle School; mentor of the Pitman Hobo Youth Band; Vineland Salvation Army tutor
Post-high school plans: Rowan University, major in American studies and finance
Were your parents big on volunteering and giving back to the community? They were very big on giving back to the community while I was growing up. My father was a Rotarian, and my mother worked and helped me in volunteering around the local community. My father actually introduced me to volunteering, where I worked with the YMCA, eventually The Salvation Army and other groups within my community.
To read more about Jonathan Choo click here.
Community/school activities: Student council; current student body president; member of Key Club, French Honor Society, Tri-M Music Honor Society and Renaissance Club; choir officer; as a member of the Seashore Community Church of the Nazarene in Cape May, member of Nazarene Youth International and Juvenile Conference Committee
Post-high school plans: Freshman this fall majoring in American government and politics at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.
How do you decide which organizations you want to do your volunteering for? I look at a couple of things. I look at how active they are. Is it something where I have to go to one place and stay there, or do I get a chance to go out into the community and meet other people? I also look at the organization’s or the agency’s beliefs. How do they align with mine?
To read more about Nikolas Frey click here.
Community/school activities: Volunteer at Bethlehem Lutheran Church where he aids in raising money and assisting in the church’s food pantry; volunteer at local food pantry; member of Oakcrest High School’s jazz and marching bands; member of select and gospel choirs as well as small a capella groups
Post-high school plans: Attend Rowan University and major in geology with a concentration in paleontology, and later get his master’s degree.
How have your community and school activities shaped you as a leader? Especially with marching band, you kind of need to have that strong authority and you kind of need to be a role model to a lot of the underclassmen that really don’t know exactly what they’re doing. It helps inspire them and motivate them to do a better job overall. At that point it’s just helping everybody out, and it’s a positive cycle.
To learn more about Justin Haye click here.
Community/school activities: Runs own community service project “David’s Digital Donations,” through which he refurbishes old laptops and computers for those in need.
Post-high school plans: Cornell University to study computer science.
How does your dedication as a student translate into your life outside of school? I really want to put a lot of effort into each of the things that I do. That’s just a really important trait to have, to be driven. ... Even in my sports, I really find its important that I push myself and ... I try to be better than everyone else because I want to be either at the same level or above people — not so it makes it easier for me, but so I have a much better experience.
To read more about David Lilienfeld click here.
Community/school activities: Seashore Gardens Living Center Nursing Home; Absecon snack stand; South Jersey Field of Dreams; Absecon Instructional Basketball League; math tutor; Peanut Butter and Jelly Club; Spartan Ambassador; Walshy’s Warriors; spirit committee; president of student government
Post-high school plans: Notre Dame class of 2025, studying pre-professional studies in science and later pre-med
What aspect of your volunteering has made the biggest impact on you? Helping out the younger kids with the sports and other activities. Since I came into high school, I wasn’t able to take part anymore because of an injury, it’s good to give back and give those kids the opportunity.
To read more about Brendan Marczyk click here.
Community/school activities: Captain of cross country and track teams in winter and spring; committee head of Interact Club; Spanish Club member; Sister Speak member; volunteer at Tween Tech, which helps younger children get involved in STEM activities
Post high school plans: Attend Rowan University and study civil engineering
Why is it important young people become leaders in their community? it is important for young people to become leaders in our community because that’s who the next generation looks up to, and it’s important to be positive role models to show them what they can become.
To read more about Mikayla Jones click here.
Community/school activities Global Ambassador; served the Grateful Hearts Sister Circle Ministries; volunteered for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey
Post-high school plans Enroll at Temple University
Why is it important for young people to become leaders in their community? It’s important that young people become leaders in their community because it will inspire others around their age, or a little older, to do better themselves. It will improve the community around them as well as themselves.
To read more about Ton'yea Mason click here.
Community/school activities: Absegami’s COVID task force; youth basketball camp coach; soccer; lacrosse; basketball; National Honor Society; Gilda’s Club; Varsity Scholars; Principal’s Student Leadership Council; distributing food in urban areas with local police; distributing book bags to children in Atlantic City; STEAM Nights through local elementary schools
Post-high school plans: U.S. Coast Guard Academy
How has past adversity helped you grow into who you are today? Growing up, I had a lot of stuff going on at home. When I was 12, my mother was diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia, and a few years ago she was also diagnosed with stage four cancer. The things I have overcome or faced made me have a lot more empathy for people. I consider other’s feelings before myself. As much as people don’t want these things to happen in their life, I believe without these things happening I wouldn’t be the person I am.
To read more about Jayla McNamara click here.
Community/school activities: Captain of Oakcrest field hockey team; member of school’s Student Council; president of school’s Media Club; creator of Hamilton Township’s Rainbow Page, a Facebook group that spreads cheer and socially distanced community engagement
Post-high school plans: Attend a four-year college to study media and business, and eventually get a master’s degree.
What inspired you to create the community Facebook group Rainbow Page and what was it like navigating that experience? Rainbow Page is a Facebook group I created right after COVID hit. I saw other communities doing this across the world, and I wanted to bring it to my community. You create rainbows and put them in your window or on your door and then post the picture to the Facebook group so people can go find them. It was a way to spread positivity and cheer. It was especially cool to see the younger kids enjoy it because it was almost like an Easter egg hunt, in a way. The hardest part was getting it off (the ground). The first day there were only five people, but then by the second week there was 300.
To read more about Paige Mlynarczyk click here.
Community/school activities Shore Memorial Hospitall Habitat for Humanity — Cape May County; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Lunch with Lynch Foundation; Active Minds — Stockton University
Post-high school plans Northeastern University
What motivated you to take up the cause of mental health and advocate for your fellow students?The main one was my sister Morgan. All throughout her high school career, she ignited the change — she founded a club that advocated for mental health. When I arrived at the high school, I saw the impact that she had, and I saw the opportunity to make an even bigger impact. So through my experience and knowledge with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Stockton University’s Active Minds, I took all those resources and I employed them at Ocean City High School. Growing up, I struggled myself with mental health. I saw how my struggles were with the lack of resources, and I wanted to make sure in the future, that changed because students need to know that struggling with mental health is OK. It’s normal, and there are people there to support you no matter what.
To read more about Madison Morgan click here.
Community/school activities: Volunteer for Stay Hungry Sports; helped feed homeless through AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center; girls basketball team manager; Viking Ambassador, a role in which she helped underclassmen navigate the high school; volunteer for the Atlantic City Marathon
Post-high school plans: To attend college and major in mass communications and journalism
What is one area you would like to make a difference in and why? I would like to make a difference in helping all the youth of Atlantic City. I believe Atlantic City does not have enough recognition or opportunities for young people. There’s just not enough support for younger students, and I think helping them and teaching them that they can do whatever they want is very important.
To read more about Tahani Muhammad click here.
Community/school activities: Aid; instructor and member of the Asian Club at Sovereign Avenue School; member of the Leo Club at Atlantic City High School; instructor at the Dynesty Alliance, where he was a performer in the 2020 opening ceremony; volunteer for the Chelsea Avenue Cleanup; blood donor
Post-high school plans: Attend Stockton University to pursue a degree in either engineering or pre-med.
Why was it important to go from a quiet, smiley kid to a young man who can speak in front of hundreds of people and be seen as a Young Leader in Atlantic City? What challenges did you come across to be good at public speaking? I believe that the transition from being quiet to becoming more of a leader and be outspoken was a hard effort because you really have to get out of your shell and become more comfortable. It doesn’t happen overnight, it does take time. But I feel that the people around me really influenced how outspoken I’ve become because I’m really comfortable with them and they’ve always encouraged me to speak my mind and to do what’s right.
To read more about Dylan Nhan click here.
Community/school activities: President of school’s Key Club; parliamentarian of her school’s National Honor Society; member of school’s Student Council; secretary of her class office; member of Red Cross Club; volunteer at Cape Regional Medical Center Auxiliary EtCetera Thrift Shop
Post-high school plans: Attend Rutgers University majoring in computer science.
What is Key Club, and what have you contributed? I’ve been a part of Key Club for four years, since I was a freshman. When I was a freshman, my older sister was president of Key Club, so she inspired me to join. I helped contribute by being the secretary last year by sending monthly reports to the district and state level so that they understand what our club is doing for the community. As president, I not only do that, but I also take care of the club and find new ways for us to volunteer in the community. With COVID, it’s hard to find volunteer opportunities by yourself.
To read more about Ishika Patel click here.
Community/school activities: Service-oriented humanitarian trips to build houses in the Bahamas and Dominican Republic; participated in canned food drives to raise money and provide food to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission; captain or co-captain of Atlantic Christian’s varsity girls soccer; basketball; softball
Post-high school plans: Attend Stockton University and major in nursing.
How have your activities in school and your community shaped you as a leader? My activities have helped shaped me as a leader because they have allowed me to see how the world is. I have been able to see what I am best in helping others, and what I like to do and what I’m good at and where I can have the most influence in the world.
To read more about Sydney Pearson click here.
Community/school activities: Cheerleader; tutor in after-school program for elementary students; beach cleanups with ROOTS Club; assisted with Organized Chaos event for middle school students; water cup volunteer for DelMo Run; helped build floats for Homecoming parade.
Post-high school plans: College
Why is it important that young people become leaders in their community? We need more role models growing up. This generation needs people to follow. It’s important to influence the younger generation. I enjoy helping students feel more comfortable about their heritage.
To read more about Irani Pelaez click here.
Community/school activities: Leo Club (four years), Deca Club (four years), World Language Club (Historian 10th-12th grade), Gate (four years), ACHS girls cross country (four years), Salvation Army volunteer, volunteer at marathons and other races and community events
Post-high school plans: Rutgers University, major in biology
Why is it important for young people to become leaders in the community and what motivates you to do it? It’s very important because it’s up to us to make the community a better place. I was raised with people who motivate me, because they’ve done a lot. Even though I’m only 18, I’m looking forward to doing more to help the community. I joined the Leo Club in my freshman year and I learned that it was about leadership, experience and opportunity. When I got a spot to volunteer at an event I was overwhelmed with joy. Leo Club was the beginning of my involvement in the community.
To read more on Farhana Rahman click here.
Community/school activities: Environmental Club; Amazon Future Engineer; Latin Honor Society; National Honor Society; Absegami Class Council; AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center junior volunteer; Atlantic County Sherriff’s Office junior volunteer; Project Mexico; peer tutor; crew team; soccer team; cross-country team
Post-high school plans: Attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, study aeronautical science
Why did you choose the most demanding classes available to you? I had an older sister to look up to who also challenged herself in school, her studies and sports. So when it came time for me to choose my high school classes, I really looked up to how successful she was in high school. I wanted to follow in her footsteps and challenge myself in new ways.
To read more about Sarah Reed click here.
Community/school activities: Equity in Civic Youth Fellowship; vice president of high school Multicultural Club; senior ambassador
Post-high school plans: Stockton University, major in political science.
What made you pursue leadership through politics? The reason I got involved politically is due to all of the events that occurred over last summer such as the Black Lives Matter movement, and even the election itself. The political divide really struck a nerve within me, especially since I was going to take AP government my senior year. I decided to be on a campaign with Amy Kennedy and get involved, which pushed me to become involved with my Equity in Civics education fellowship, which further led me to be understanding and open-minded of not only going and volunteering such as food and clothing drives but also doing it in a political view as well.
To read more on Raneen Rehani click here.
Community/school activities: Volleyball; baseball; basketball; football; Junior ROTC; Coalition for a Safe Community; track and field; Men of Distinction; math club; STEM club; National Honor Society; Carver Early College Program; class representative
Post-high school plans: Committed to a four-year college and would like to get his master’s degree in business management, business administration or accounting
How have sports and community activities helped you in your academic and personal life? Every activity that I’ve joined in high school helped me tremendously. It kept me busy. I wasn’t a student who would just go home right after school, sit down on the couch and watch TV. I was always active. I always kept myself active for that reason, because I didn’t want to be that kind of person in life and in general. I always want to have something to do, and I feel as though building all these chemistries, with all these other coaches and all these players, can definitely help me build a foundation outside of high school, for sure.
To read more about Jesus Ruiz click here.
Community/school activities Relay For Life at Mainland Regional High School; varsity baseball captain; student council officer; unified sports member; National Honor Society member
Post high school plans Attend a university studying quantitative economics using his Navy ROTC scholarship
Career goals Become a naval officer, accelerate his career and start his own business one day.
What is Inclusion Day? Inclusion Day is what’s evolved from the initial 3v3 21 Down Basketball Tournament. It’s a day for kids with different special needs all throughout South Jersey. We have fun, we have something for everybody. We have sports, games, relay races, we even have face painting. So it’s a really fun day for families and students with special needs to come together and really have a great day. With Inclusion Day, it’s sometimes tough to navigate who’s going to be coming, who’s going to be running this event and this event. Successes are the smiles on everyone’s faces, the families of the kids and especially the kids themselves. They always love a day to just have some fun and to relax.
To read more about Clayton Sands click here.
Community/school activities: National Honor Society president; student council president; senior editor for CCTEC Newspaper club; Challenger League member; varsity baseball team member; Club Active member; volunteer tutor and CCTEC ambassador
Post-high school plans: Attend Thomas Jefferson University for a five-year architecture program.
Why is it important young people become leaders in their community? A lot of people just like to blend in, and they’re afraid of sticking out. But a real leader is someone that stands out and motivates others to do the same as well, so we have more people that are able to fix our hometowns.
To learn more about Luke Vastano click here.
Community/school activities Key Club; student council; Culinary Club; Interact Club; National Honor Society; volunteering at an elderly salon; volunteering at local bakery; waitressing at the Our Lady of Assumption stand.
Post-high school plans: Attend the College of New Jersey, major in marketing.
What are some traits of a true leader? A true leader isn’t scared to say what they think. They do what’s right no matter what, even if it goes against what other people think. They try to help others while benefiting their community.
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