The nonprofit Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation will celebrate five years of connecting children and teens to the performing arts when it presents the Step in the Spotlight Soiree & Talent Competition on Nov. 17 at the Lobster Shanty’s Sunset Ballroom in Point Pleasant Beach.
The gala evening of entertainment and inspiration begins at 6 p.m. and will feature amazing talent, celebrity judges, and exciting audience participation, all in support of the foundation’s mission to provide children with financial barriers the opportunity to receive ongoing performing arts lessons.
Guests will enjoy dinner, dancing, and live performances by the lineup of contestants, foundation scholarship recipients, and the outstanding AOK Performance Group. Contestants will be vying for the Zzak G. Spotlight Award, second place, and the Audience Choice Award.
Creative expression is a lifeline for many of the children assisted by the AOK Foundation’s programming. Attending, sponsoring, or participating in the 5th Annual Step in the Spotlight Soiree & Talent Competition, helps make a tremendous difference in a child’s life.
Tickets are $125 per person and sponsorships and ads are available at various price points. To purchase tickets and learn more about the mission of the Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation, go here. Cast your vote for your favorite talent competition contestants by selecting their profile here. Vote as many times as you wish for $5 per vote, with proceeds benefiting the foundation.
About the Contestants
This year’s talented contestants include:
With a bachelor’s degree in Performing Arts Administration from Hunter College, Olivia Renkel started her training at a young age, studying ballet, jazz, tap, lyrical, musical theater, and voice. She currently works as the Arts and Special Events director for The Salvation Army in New Jersey. Olivia dances with a NY-based dance company called Move, and also sings with Unbound, a NY-based touring Christian band.
Tom is a musical jack-of-all-trades, trained in music theory and composition. He is the music director and keyboard player for the well-loved Jersey Shore band Brian Kirk and the Jirks, has served as a church choir director and organist for 12 years and is a founder and teacher at 5 Melody Music in Middletown.
A recent graduate from Westminster Choir College, Emily is currently the choir and drama director at Manchester Township Middle School and the artistic director for the Manchester Recreational Department’s Theater program. She competed in the Soiree last year and made some additional appearances alongside the AOK Performance Group.
Don Sweeny is a self-taught songwriter and performer, using voice, guitar, and blues harp to bring his songs to life. “In a way, though, I’m reluctant to call these songs ‘mine’,” he says. “More than a composer or author, I feel I am the fortunate recipient of songs that just happen to come through me.”
Vanessa O’Brien serves her local communities as a legislative aide to Senator Declan O’Scanlon, Jr. of New Jersey’s 13th Legislative District, is the co-founder of 5 Melody Music of Middletown, and is the business manager for her husband Tom O’Brien, a professional musician and composer. O’Brien sings in her church choir and performs alongside her husband at weddings and special events.
Laura Sisskin is an NYC-based theater artist and singer-songwriter who is most known for her award-winning and New York Innovative Theatre Award-nominated one-woman show, “You Hold a Pole Every Day.” Her single “The Most Beautiful Garden” can be found featured in the timely indie film “Ask for Jane” and in “Democracy Now!” A blend of pop, folk, and soul, she can’t help writing about love.
Justin Daniels is originally from Delaware, now living in Monmouth County. A soulful, passionate singer, he most recently won Georgie’s 2019 Idol in Asbury Park. When he is not singing, Daniels stays in the entertainment industry as a producer, cameraman, and editor and owns ClayMonster Productions, a video production company.
Danielle Brandon, known as Danielle Fay, is an artist, singer, writer, and podcast co-host/co-owner of Allegedly Credible Entertainment LLC. Danielle is currently working on her first album and has had the honor of performing at the Hackensack Meridian Health Theatre (formerly the Count Basie Theater) in Red Bank in the Dunbar Repertory Company’s production of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.”
Nathan Bishop is an Irish traditional fiddler, violinist, and teacher based in New Jersey. A mentee of the avant-garde fiddler Cleek Schrey, Nathan currently conducts Hunterdon Musical Arts’ Music for Youth “Saturday Strings” program, and periodically leads the pickup band for the Princeton Country Dancers. He runs a violin and fiddle studio for students of all ages out of his small cottage in Somerville.
Gary DeVirgilio is a teaching artist currently employed with Community-Word Project. He performed twice on Broadway and has made many short films and two feature films as a lead actor. He has written films, pilots, poems, short stories, and a couple of unedited novels and has performed his original music throughout New York City at many venues over the years. Gary plans to release an EP and an album by Christmas of 2022.
About the Judges
Celebrity judges for this year’s talent competition will be:
Kim Berrios Lin
Kim Berrios Lin is an actor, producer, writer, advocate, and proud member of the Applaud Our Kids Advisory Committee. She is most recently known for her recurring role in “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” on HBO Max. Other recent credits include “Better Nate Than Ever” (Disney+), “Pose” (FX), “New Amsterdam” (NBC), “Almost Family” (Fox), “Bull” (CBS), and “The Politician” (Netflix). Kim is the founder of the award-winning, socially conscious indie production company And She Flew, co-founder of the social justice theatre org Colors of Community and holds an MFA from The Actor’s Studio Drama School. She is an ensemble member of Barefoot Theatre Company, Labyrinth Theater Intensive Ensemble, Playful Substance, and Rock the Bells, a sketch comedy team that she performs and writes for. Her poem “I am we” was recently published in Yellow Arrow Journal’s “Renascence” issue. Beyond the arts, Lin is the soon-to-be patent owner of a product she invented called Yogisaver.
Stunt person, actress, and entrepreneur Anna Mastroianni performed as a stunt person for 13 years in film and television, doubling for stars like Kate Winslet (“Cigarettes and Romance”), Goldie Hawn (“First Wives Club”), Drea Di Matteo (“Sopranos”), and Lauren Velez (“NY Undercover”). She appeared in the movies “Independence Day,” “Spider Man 2” and “Spider Man 3,” “Analyze That,” “Unconditional Love,” and “The Rebound” and earned a SAG AWARD for stunt ensemble in “Bourne Ultimatum.” Anna has performed Off-Broadway in the New York Times-reviewed “Sweatshop,” has 50+ theatre credits in NYC, and performed opposite Rita Moreno, Paul Sorvino, and Mira Sorvino. She was a recurring character in “As the World Turns” and appeared on “David Letterman,” “Another World,” and “Loving,” plus film roles in the independent films “Blue Moon,” “The Deli,” and “Men Lie.” As a voiceover artist, she has worked for Calvin Klein, Continental Airlines, and Hoeffer International, among others. Mastroianni opened the award-winning upscale shoe boutique SOLE SHOES in 2001 in Westfield.
Peggy Becker is the owner of Parkside Talent Management, dedicated to managing actors of all ages and with talent in all facets of the industry. Since 2006, her goal is for Parkside to be the center of their clients’ careers by providing advice, career counseling, problem-solving, and a wealth of resources to help them improve their lives and careers, coordinating with their agents, attorneys, and casting to provide the best possible outcome for each client.
Producer and writer Nick Ditri is most known as one-half of the globally known and platinum-selling dance music duo, Disco Fries, which has had over 500 million streams across their releases, productions, and remixes on Spotify and Apple, hitting Billboard with their productions and releases over 25 times. As co-manager of the duo, Nick has orchestrated hundreds of social activations, live events, and brand partnerships, including 7UP, ESPN, Apple, T-Mobile, and more. Additionally, he is the co-founder of FinishMyTrack.com, a music “finishing house” helping artists get their tracks retail-ready that placed over 15 dance records on the Mediabase Dance charts in its first year in business in 2021. Ditri has contributed as music supervisor to “John Henry,” starring Terry Crews and Ludacris, which went No. 1 on Netflix in 2020. Ditri has helped onboard artists and assisted in the growth of over $3 million in revenue in RCRDSHP’s first three quarters in business.
Heather Brittain O’Scanlon
Heather Brittain O’Scanlon is an award-winning actress and filmmaker and is vice-chair of the board of directors for the Garden State Film Festival. Her acting credits include “Blue Bloods” (CBS), “Tom’s Dilemma,” a feature directed by Miguel Gluckstern and produced by the Sundance Award-winning Darren Dean, and the Vimeo Staff Pick “At the End of the Cul-de-Sac,” a Paul Trillo film that was featured in TIME Magazine and premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. O’Scanlon is the president of SOS Productions, an independent film production company. She produced, co-wrote, and co-stars in the award-winning short film “House Broken” that is streaming on Amazon Video. SOS Production’s latest film is the 1970s thriller “Victim No. 6,” which is currently racking up awards along the festival circuit. Next up for Heather and SOS is the feature film “Big Enzo’s Wedding,” now in development and to be filmed entirely in New Jersey. O’Scanlon is a member of SAG-AFTRA, New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT), and Women in Media.
Ann Pennington is an international model, actress, and beauty queen who has had the opportunity to live internationally, including in Europe and Hong Kong, where she studied fashion and launched her career. Her work is featured on billboards, magazines, books, and album covers and her clients include “Hamilton” Broadway stars, TV personalities, executives, doctors, and lawyers. She has enjoyed working with celebrities on runway fashion shows, including the prestigious Fashion Week, and the Hong Kong Film Festival, movies, and more. She has been featured in multiple magazines, recently including the cover of Glamour Magazine. She also launched a series of physical and virtual fashion shows and “Sip and Shops” that raised money for her homeless charities and complemented her work on the Covenant House board as the Sleepout chair and her recent appointment as a HABcore trustee board member.
Lou Morreale, a trained chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, became involved with JBJ Soul Kitchen during the early stages of development. Motivated by the mission and connection to the community, Lou supplied much-needed equipment, dinnerware, and support during its pilot program in Red Bank, NJ, where the flagship restaurant is now located. Since joining the JBJ Soul Kitchen family officially in 2014, he has assisted in expanding the JBJ Soul Kitchen model to Toms River, NJ and the Rutgers University-Newark campus. His accolades include serving over 700 entertainment artists and public figures, including President Obama, which allowed him the honor and privilege to cook in the West Wing of the White House.
About the Sponsors and Honorees
The 5th Annual Step into the Spotlight Soiree & Talent Competition is made possible through the generosity of Presenting Orchestra Sponsor, the Grunin Foundation, and many other supporters. The evening will include special presentations to Community Partner Honorees that include:
JBJ Soul Kitchen
Founded by musician Jon Bon Jovi, the JBJ Soul Kitchen seeks to provide healthy, locally sourced food in a restaurant setting to an in-need and paying customers to address issues of food insecurity. It empowers individuals by providing resources and volunteer opportunities and encourages paying customers to effect change by paying it forward to cover the cost of the in-need customers. JBJ Soul Kitchen promises to treat all customers with dignity and respect while uniting communities and forming healthy and lasting relationships through food.
Joanne Gwin is the community coordinator for JBJ Soul Kitchen Restaurant in Toms River. Gwin began volunteering at People’s Pantry in Silverton and watched as JBJ Soul Kitchen and the B.E.A.T. Center were being created. JBJ Soul Kitchen opened its doors in May of 2016 and by October, she was a staff volunteer. She started organizing food, toy, and coat drives at her workplace and volunteering at a local school to provide holidays for families who were struggling in the district. In January 2020, as her contract with the Air Force ended, she took a full-time position as Community Coordinator for JBJ Soul Kitchen Restaurant in Toms River. Less than two months into her new position, COVID hit, increasing both the need and the tremendous impact she was able to make in the community.
Born and raised in Long Branch, Robert Wood enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps as a high school senior. During his eight years in the Marines, he traveled throughout the U.S. and around the world and while stationed in Okinawa, Japan, developed a passion for new cuisines and cultures. After his discharge in 2011, Wood moved back to New Jersey, where he attended culinary school at Brookdale Community College and earned an associate degree inn Culinary Arts, then transferred to Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport PA for a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts. In October 2018, Wood became the executive chef and front of house manager at JBJ Soul Kitchen in Toms River.
Erich Wald is a singer/songwriter, educator, and family man. After graduating with a degree in Songwriting from Berklee College of Music, Erich discovered his other true passion, arts education. As a middle school choir director and private voice teacher, he weaves his passion for creativity into all he does. He has been recognized for his contributions to songwriting projects that have benefited children’s hospitals throughout the world, been named teacher of the year at the Russell O. Brackman Middle School and was a nominee for the 2019 Grammy Award for music educators. As an artist, Wald has released multiple projects in various genres and has had his work featured on major television network programming. He continues to write, arrange, produce, and perform, lives every day loving what he does, and considers himself a curator of creativity.
About the Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation
Committed to the belief that financial constraints should not limit creative expression, the Zzak G. AOK Foundation is dedicated to connecting youngsters in need, ages 7-18, with performing arts studios and instructors and directly funding 100% of the costs for them to attend ongoing vocal, instrumental, acting, or dance lessons close to their homes. The organization also funds or supplies items such as dance shoes, dancewear, musical instruments, and other resources to help the children succeed, affirming its belief that financial barriers should not limit creative expression. For many youngsters, these lessons represent an extended family and a constant in their lives that may be missing, while also helping to increase motor and cognitive skills, build self-esteem, and teach leadership, teamwork, responsibility, independence, and creativity.
To learn more about the Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation, including ways to help and how to apply for a performing arts scholarship, visit www.applaudourkids.org and follow the foundation on Facebook at www.facebook.com/applaudourkids, on Instagram @applaudourkids, and on YouTube at Zzak G. Applaud Our Kids Foundation Inc.