The two best friends hoped to pursue careers in drama -- Nik as an actor, Tony as a sound and light technician. But when the Stone Bridge High School students were killed in an accident in March, their families decided to help other young people realize those dreams.
The result is the Tony and Nik Foundation, which seeks to raise at least $100,000 for grants to high school students, teachers and theater programs in Loudoun County. It is named for Stone Bridge Drama Club members Nicholas "Nik" J. Pendola, 16, and Anthony "Tony" Cibelli-Mason, 17, who were thrown from the open bed of a pickup when it crashed into a ditch on Ridgeway Drive in the Broadlands community March 27.
The driver, then a 15-year-old who authorities said was driving without a license, also was thrown from the vehicle but survived. He pleaded guilty Friday in Loudoun County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court to two charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving. Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Plowman and the youth's relatives worked together to craft a sentence, which, among other conditions, will require his monthly attendance at driver's license ceremonies.
After the accident, the youths' families asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to Stone Bridge High, and more than $14,000 was received. Four $1,500 scholarships were awarded this year to graduating seniors, and about $4,000 was given to Stone Bridge drama teacher Glen Hochkeppel to pay for royalties for future productions and for such set-making equipment as a circular table saw and drills. The rest of the money was set aside to start the foundation.
"Let's see if we can use this momentum and build something lasting," said John Pendola, Nik's father and president of the foundation. He said he hoped the foundation could become the equivalent of a football booster club and provide ongoing support to drama students throughout the county.
In addition to cash and volunteer time, the family also hopes to solicit grants from other foundations as well as corporate sponsorships. Tony's father, Bob Mason, has a colleague who has offered to organize a charity golf tournament.
The foundation plans to provide stipends to high school students who aspire to careers in the performing arts, without the usual requirement that the money be used for college tuition. Since success as a dramatic artist often requires following a non-traditional career path, the funds could go to guitar or singing lessons, for spending money during an audition process or for any other need of a would-be star.
"Our goal is to keep kids doing what they want to do for their dream," said Terri Pendola, Nik's mother and a self-described "drama momma." She said that although she and other parents do their best to support the drama club -- by bringing snacks during last-minute late-night rehearsals, for example -- putting on a show requires more assistance than individual parents can provide.
The foundation will also give grants to Loudoun's high school drama programs. Hochkeppel said such money could be used for sound equipment, lighting instruments with dimmer systems and software for digital set design and video editing.
"These are things that make theater much easier to do, but they're expensive," said Hochkeppel, who worked with both Nik, a sophomore, and Tony, a senior, as their drama teacher and production director. "When school budgets are tight, it's difficult to get big-ticket items."
John Pendola said that although many schools in Loudoun have top-notch performance spaces, he is concerned that the facilities may not be maintained over the years and that the costs of costumes, sets and construction equipment required to pull off a first-class show can quickly add up.
Tony and Nik were actively involved in Stone Bridge's spring production of "Kiss Me, Kate," which was set in space, characteristic of the school's bold drama program. Nik was to play the role of Bill Calhoun, the show's comic lead, while Tony was the show's stage manager and choreographer of its Star Wars-style swordfight. Nik's 14-year-old brother, A.J., keeps a light saber that Nik would have used in the show displayed on a hook in the family computer room.
The prop looked impressive on stage, he said, but closer inspection revealed it was held together precariously with duct tape. "We hope that maybe we can achieve a better level of performance if we have more money," said A.J., who plans to get involved with drama when he enters Stone Bridge as a ninth-grader next month.
"This was such a big part of their lives that nothing could be better than to help out their fellow actors and techies," said Bob Mason, vice president of the foundation. "It's something that's perfect to remember them by. I think they'd love it."
Donations to the Tony and Nik Foundation are tax deductible and can be sent to PO Box 2021, Ashburn, Va. 20146. More information is available at www.tonyandnik.org.