Diaspora

'Taking readers somewhere they can't go': The stories we gave our subscribers in 2021 – Courier Post

During a year of rebuilding and rethinking what “normal” can be, we brought our subscribers the necessary, prescient stories happening in South Jersey. From the impacts of national politics on our doorsteps and the vibrant communities that call our region home to tales of local history and future history makers, we covered it all. 
I joined the South Jersey newsroom at the beginning of September, but in the past three months alone, I’ve seen the hard work, tact and grit that each journalist puts into their stories. They bring our subscribers the best; whether they’re covering the hottest new restaurants in Camden County, complex criminal proceedings in Cumberland County, high school sports in Atlantic County, infrastructure in Gloucester County, or education issues in Burlington County. 
In 2021, The Daily Journal, Courier-Post and Burlington County Times produced so many incredible stories about life in South Jersey.This kind of work is only possible because of the support of our most loyal readers, our subscribers.
Read on to see some of our favorites from the South Jersey journalists.
JERRY BLAVAT:Fans wrote letters to DJ Jerry Blavat in 1962. 59 years later, he is opening them on air
My favorite subscriber story to write this year was our scoop about Jerry Blavat reading “lost’’ fan mail he’d received from his days hosting his radio show from Camden. WXPN 88.5 FM DJ, musician and Collingswood native Ben Vaughn is a long-time friend and fan of The Geator, and he produced a special episode of his “The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn’’ podcast devoted to Blavat’s legacy.
Together, they read the letters, which had remained unopened for decades, and reflected upon “the yon teens’’ who had sent them to the broadcast pioneer 59 earlier later when Blavat hosted “the hippest show on the radio.’’ I co-wrote this piece with reporter Carol Comegno and we received many lovely comments from readers who still cherish their memories (recent or otherwise) of South Jersey’s one and only Boss with the Hot Sauce. As someone who is of the Pierre Robert, rather than the Jerry Blavat generation, working on this story with Carol Comegno really helped me understand why The Geator is still so beloved. 
JILL BIDEN: The First Lady is a Jersey Girl: How South Jersey shaped young Jill Biden
My favorite story to edit this year was a nostalgic tour from the Pinelands to the Jersey Shore from the perspective of a young Jill Biden, who was born in Hammonton. Our team did an excellent job resurrecting some little known (except to locals) history of the First Lady’s early days visiting her grandparents in Atlantic County and waitressing in Ocean City. From the Steel Pier to a favorite Italian market to a spring they’d stop at to cool off on the trip back to Philadelphia, it was a fun and memorable journey through South Jersey history with a presidential twist.
Both Adam Monacelli, who shot the photos and video, and Carol Comegno, who wrote the story, have such an intimacy with this part of the world and what matters there. It would not have been as strong a piece in anyone else’s hands. 
CARLOS BULOSANA complicated love story: Author’s critique of America gave Filipino migrants a voice
THIS IS AMERICA: In reporting an untold Filipino-American story, I uncovered more about my grandfather’s life
This story was a very personal one for Phaedra Trethan, a story that required patience, resilience and a ton of research. It shares the forgotten history of the Manong, a lost generation of Filipino migrant farmers who left their homeland behind to start new lives in the promise of early 20th-century America. Their world is brought back to life through the writings and story of Carlos Bulosan, an author/poet and activist who championed their cause while struggling to make his own way in a country not delivering on its promises.
I learned many lessons while serving as an editor on this story, part of USA TODAY’s Never Been Told project, including the vital role the Manong played in building this country and feeding its people. Phaedra reflected on the project, the inspiration for which came from the legacy of her own grandfather, in a column that accompanied the piece. The Never Been Told series shares “the unseen, unheard, lost and forgotten stories of America’s people of color.’’ 
— Tammy Paolino, Regional Features Editor
THE PLAQUE IN THE PINES:Who put the plaque in the pines to honor fallen military pilot?
CAMDEN LIBRARY: ‘Two crazy book guys,’ one old library and a whole lot of books
WATERFRONT PARK: Camden waterfront park, once a city dumping ground, progressing
CAMDEN’S OLDEST HOME: What will it take to preserve Camden’s oldest house?
What all of the above stories have in common is that we were able to take readers somewhere they can’t go, showing them things few others get to see. I’ve always joked that I have a long history of benign trespassing (seriously I don’t know how I didn’t get arrested multiple times in my teens and 20s) but journalism allows me to indulge that impulse while sharing what I’ve seen with our readers. It also allows me to explore my love of history, of architecture, of old, abandoned and/or spooky places. 
PARKS‘Not in Our Parks’: Camden residents taking charge, cleaning up
CURFEWSThese volunteers are working to keep Camden kids safe past curfew
These stories are among my favorites because they highlight the way Camden residents and regular people are finding ways to empower themselves and make their city better. In each story, people saw a problem, made their voices heard and found ways to team with institutions while retaining ownership of the solution. 
— Phaedra Trethan, Reporter
BODEGAS: ‘So we have a voice’: Camden’s corner store owners find a way to work together
Phaedra Trethan tells an important story about the comradery convenience stores have with one another and with their communities. Although widely overlooked, these businesses are often the backbone of low-income populations.
— Ahmad Austin, Reporter
KEYWUAN CAULKThis SJ native was Black, queer, Christian and confused. Now he’s breaking ground at Rutgers
This South Jersey native realized who he was when he was a little boy growing up in Penns Grove where he was very active in his local church and community center. He is a Black, gay male, who is proud of his heritage, religion and his sexual identity and helps others now in the way he likely needed to be helped and supported while growing up. Keywuan Caulk is now the director at the Center for Social Justice Education & LGBT Communities at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
— Celeste E. Whittaker, Reporter
POST 9/11 HATESikhs, Muslims say hate, discrimination still a concern 20 years after Sept. 11
This piece by Nicolette White, Hira Qureshi and Kaity Assaf was essential in helping the public face the harsh reality that Muslim and Sikh discrimination is still alive and well two decades after the Sept. 11 attacks. The use of Ramajit Chawla’s story in the beginning was brief yet very effective.
— Ahmad Austin, Reporter
HAITIAN VOICESHaitians, who have a strong presence in New Jersey, want to help their people back home
I love that this story by Celeste E. Whittaker gives a voice to the Haitian population existing in South Jersey and Philadelphia who I had no idea had such a strong presence. You can tell from the visually striking way the article was put together that a lot of background research as well as effort was put into the storytelling. 
— Nicolette White, Reporter
CULINARY ARTSThese culinary students are creating recipes for their futures
I interviewed four graduating culinary students (one has a year to go) about what they are hoping to do in their future, what the culinary experience has been like in college and more. The idea was sparked after speaking to a culinary director at RCBC for another story. She shared how her students really seemed to want to go into different careers these days, things that really enable them to utilize their creativity and be more independent. I will be following up with culinary news related to the colleges they attended or still attend and will also be following up with the four (not all at the same time) as they come into their own in their careers. 
More:How does a restaurant chain choose a South Jersey town for its next location?
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: How does a restaurant chain choose a South Jersey town for its next location?
I spoke to restaurant owners, local politicians, community leaders, about how sit-down chain restaurants select the markets they want to go into and why certain towns can’t seem to attract anything other than fast-food restaurants. I found some statistics that I folded into the story regarding crime rates and other things, because while those statistics do play a role, it seemed that towns with similar crime stats but different racial makeups had vastly different results in their ability or inability to attract certain types of restaurants. 
— Celeste E. Whittaker, Reporter
More:Kayak on Rancocas Creek, then dine and drink in downtown Mount Holly 
SPIRITS: Mission Spirits wants to start rum renaissance at South Jersey distillery
This summer assignment was a reminder during the COVID era why reporting in-person will always prove more valuable than a phone interview. I was able to spend a few hours with the owners of Mission Spirits at their Millville distillery, and my time there gave me a real feel for their vision and passion for rum. The sights and sounds, along with the unplanned stories told by Mission’s founder made for a fun piece to write.
— Anthony Coppola, Reporter
More:Restaurants bolster drive-thru options for pandemic-wary patrons
COVID KIDSYou’re grounded: How school gardens are helping kids’ COVID anxiety
Winslow Middle School students confirmed the education team’s suspicions — the pandemic was really hard on kids. In this story, we let kids — not guardians or educators — speak for themselves and tell us what they were feeling during remote learning, and how gardening under the supervision of their teachers helped give them control over their lives. 
SCHOOL LUNCHES: What can your kid expect in the cafeteria this year?
August was a hopeful time for students in New Jersey. They looked forward to going back to school with fewer COVID-19 worries than in 2020. But so much still looked so different than 2019. In 2021, all students received free meals regardless of their family’s income. While we set out to look at what this school year’s lunch system and menus would look like, we applauded school cafeteria workers for working the front lines through the pandemic, even when school was remote to pack up and deliver meals to their communities. 
HANDS-ON LEARNING:Sparks flying again in vocational high schools is ‘good news’ for SJ trade unions
There were fireworks of sorts on a historic story for my personal reporting career. My visit to GCIT in May was my first on-site school visit in more than a year of COVID-19 pandemic living. 
— Carly Q. Romalino, Reporter
SCHOOL STARTS: How spring, summer programs will determine fall return
This collaborate effort took a deep dive into how school districts across South Jersey were attempting to prepare for a return to in-person learning amid uncertainty about the COVID situation. Reporting this story gave me a certain level of appreciation for school officials forced to navigate the logistics of a fluid pandemic situation with no firm direction from the state at the time. 
— Anthony Coppola, Reporter
POLICING: The police response to mental health crises is broken, say agencies, advocates, data
Fatal encounters between police and people experiencing psychiatric emergencies have made national headlines in recent years, but I looked at the issue close to home when the state Attorney General’s Office announced a pilot program that will pair State Police officers with mental health experts in Cumberland County. I combed our network’s archives for police shootings of people with mental illnesses in New Jersey, spoke with advocates, read through directives and training documents, pulled South Jersey data from the Attorney General Office’s use-of-force database and interviewed researchers about the importance of programs like these. I explained the different methods by which police departments and communities are tackling the issue, the effectiveness of each one and how they can go wrong. Non-subscribers could read a story about the announcement of the program, but subscribers had access to a story that asked — and answered — why it, and programs like it, are important. 
— Aedy Miller, Reporter
More:How will South Jersey towns account for COVID-caused revenue loss?
More:Without Trump, South Jersey conservatives prepare to keep movement alive
TRUMP’S FALL IN ACAfter Plaza falls, only Trump’s legacy will remain in Atlantic City
Days before the Trump Plaza crashed to the ground in an implosion, this story looked at how Donald Trump’s casino ventures similarly tumbled over a period of several memorable years in Atlantic City. 
— Jim Walsh, Reporter
PETS AND VETSMore pets, but not enough vets: Where have all the doctors gone?
A local and national veterinarian shortage has caused longer waits for pet owners at vet offices and more stress for the existing doctors. COVID-19 and retirement of Baby Boomer generation vets has exacerbated the shortage while some doctors are working well past their planned retirement because they cannot find replacement doctors to take over their practices or even to assist them in busy practices before they retire. Some vets work beyond planned retirement, often working alone and for long hours because they love pets and are committed to continuing to provide health care for them. 
WORDSMITHMeet the youngest female to pen a New York Times crossword puzzle
The New York Times accepted and published an entry from Soleil Saint-Cyr, a Moorestown teen and student scholar, for its iconic daily crossword puzzle. She has always had a way with words, reads the NYT and also solved its puzzles, but the pandemic gave her more time to think about constructing a puzzle for the NYT because she was spending so much more time at home. 
— Carol Comegno, Reporter
More:What an unreleased police report says about the day Hailey McMullen died
More:The Centerton Road bridge is long gone, so why do people keep asking about it?
HOOPS: Magic is in the Work: Camden boys basketball embraces expectations of 2021-22 season
Josh Friedman gives us a great look behind the scenes of one of the most anticipated high school basketball seasons in recent memory. The practice he attended shows just how much the Camden High team strives for perfection while acknowledging the nationwide hype it has. 
— Ahmad Austin, Reporter
More:South Jersey hoops standout went from armed robberies to college recruit
More:All-girls baseball team in Cherry Hill ready to blaze own trail
More:South Jersey’s high school athletic trainers take on more roles in COVID era
Aedy Miller covers education and the economy for the Burlington County Times, Courier-Post, and The Daily Journal. They are a multimedia journalist from Central Jersey and a recent graduate of the George Washington University.
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