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Happiness Is ... a Volunteer Valentine

Through the beloved Peanuts characters, the members of this West Deptford Little Theatre traveling group hope to spread the sunshine this Valentine's Day.

Valentine’s Day, the holiday of romance, roses and Hallmark cards, is coming up this Thursday.

Sweethearts throughout the country are scheming to surprise their significant others. Singles are scrambling for some sort of connection, desperate not to spend the holiday alone. And schoolchildren are covering shoeboxes with shiny foil, cutting out red construction paper hearts and signing their names to paper cutout figures of Scooby Doo and Strawberry Shortcake, ready to share with their besties and the other kids in their class.

But one group of young people is planning to celebrate Valentine’s Day in a special way. Two dozen kids, ranging in age from 7 to 17, will be sharing smiles through song and vignettes performed through the month at convalescent homes throughout the region.

While performing a mash-up of the musicals You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Snoopy!, the group plans to reach out to senior citizens to let them know they are not forgotten this Valentine’s Day.

The group is known as the Volunteer Valentines, and are an offshoot of West Deptford Little Theatre. WDLT founder Susan Schramm hand-picked the two dozen performers from last year’s summer theater participants and has been working with them since October to prepare this presentation, a gift to the community to kick off the organization’s 40th anniversary year.

“Volunteer Valentines is when we go to different shows and we bring valentines to different people who may not usually get valentines,” explains Alli Sanders, 15, a sophomore at Gloucester Catholic. “I think it’s a great idea, because the older people don’t expect it and it makes them happy and smile.”

Sanders points out that doing something for others to enjoy has been the motto of WDLT for the past four decades.

“In theater, we’re taught to make our own sunshine,” she says, referring to the organization’s theme song. “So giving some sunshine to other people makes me happy. We’re passing our message on.”

Traditionally, the casts of each Charles Schulz-inspired musical is relatively small. However, Schramm double-cast the show, having two children portray each of the familiar characters from the classic Peanuts comic strip. For example, Sanders is sharing the role of Sally with Rose Cairns, also a 15-year-old sophomore.

“I am excited by the idea of Volunteer Valentines,” says Cairns, a Gloucester County Institute of Technology (GCIT) sophomore who is also the reigning Miss Teen West Deptford. “Volunteer Valentines will give the cast of Charlie Brown the chance to volunteer, spread love and have the community enjoy our show.”

The lead role, that of Charlie Brown himself, is shared by Connor Fesili and Christian Hoedt. Fesilli, 17, who is currently juggling this role with the part of Horton the elephant in Holy Angels Parish’s production of Seussical, says he’s looking forward to interacting with the older people in the audience.

“At the end of the show we will go around the audience and hand each of the elderly a valentine,” he explains. “It’s a new experience that I’ve never tried before. I was so excited I even went out and bought my favorite valentines to hand out!”

Those who meet Fesilli after a performance will be treated to Spongebob Squarepants lollipop valentine card.

The Volunteer Valentines will be doing four performances of their show, called A Musical Evening with Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Friends. The opening performance will be on Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Woodbury Mews. Next weekend, the show will be performed twice—on Friday at the Church of the Incarnation in Mantua and on Sunday at Manor Care in West Deptford. The final show of this run will be on Feb. 24 at Pitman Manor, though the group hopes to perform one last time in April as a fundraiser for WDLT.

The teens participating in Volunteer Valentines have a variety of ways they plan to celebrate this Thursday—from going to the movies with friends to baking for family and from playing with younger siblings to going out for Chinese. But all of them see the value in volunteering to share some love with those who may be forgotten come Feb. 14.

“It’s important for teens to interact with seniors because we can discover how rewarding it is to make someone else’s day a little better,” points out WDHS freshman Nikki Poulos, 14. Poulos, who is also representing West Deptford in this year’s All South Jersey Choir, will be sharing the role of Frieda in the Volunteer Valentines shows.

Though the kids had no idea of Schramm’s plan when they joined the group, they embraced the idea of making this more than just another show.

“Volunteer Valentines is a great idea, in my opinion. It just shows every senior citizen that everyone is loved and no one is forgotten,” says Juliana Vernacchio, 16, a sophomore studying performing arts at GCIT.

“I love community service because I love to put smiles on other people’s faces and make them feel good inside,” adds Vernacchio, a showstopper who sings and dances her way through the role of Snoopy, everyone’s favorite beagle. “I think it’s important for teenagers to do volunteer work because it shows that teens still care.”

Giving of their time and talents, these teens and their younger costars will be letting the older people of the county know they’re loved this Valentine’s Day, in a way that construction paper hearts and Whitman samplers never could.

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