As the buses pulled up in front of the Meadowlands Expo Center on Dec. 17 in Secaucus, volunteers in gray shirts rushed down the stairs to greet them. Most of the kids on the buses came from schools in Jersey City and Newark, and any nearby school that has a severe poverty rate.
“We go by those who qualify for a free or reduced lunch at their schools,” said Heather Kamasa, a co-chair person of the 16th Annual New Jersey Apartment Association’s Charitable Fund Children’s Holiday Party.
With a cold rain and light snow blowing outside, volunteers made sure the smaller kids got up the stairs and into the expo center. Inside the warm lobby, the children – each escorted by an older volunteer from various schools in the area – were greeted by a host of familiar faces: Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, Elmo, Sponge Bob, even Toy Story’s legendary Cowboy Sheriff Woody Pride and his companion, Space Ranger Buzz Light Year.
The characters are staff members from the NJAA – who come from all over New Jersey, Kamasa said. The kids mostly come from nearby.
“We expected more than 1,000, but with this weather, we’ll get less,” she said, glancing through the doors at the gray skies over the yellow school buses at the curb.
Inside the convention center, the children were greeted by table after table where they might get a decoration painted on their face or balloons twisted into the shape of animals.
“This is about the New Jersey Apartment Association giving back to the community.” – Jean Maddalon
“People donate gifts,” Kamasa said. “We have 1,150 gifts. Everybody gets a hot lunch and gets to dance if they want.”
Giving back to the community
The NJAA Charitable Fund was founded with the mission of using the collective resources of the multi-family housing industry to give back to the community. Through the fund, NJAA’s members have the opportunity to participate in charitable events and donate their time and resources with generosity in mind.
Since 1998, the NJAA has hosted a holiday party each December for thousands of underprivileged children throughout the state. Members collect toys through office and property toy drives and volunteer their time to ensure every child has a day of fun. The goal of the NJAA Charitable Fund is a year round effort made possible by the same members dedicated to providing safe and affordable housing to New Jersey families.
“The executive director at the time knew someone and wanted to do something,” said Jean Maddalon, the executive director of NJAA. “I started about five years ago.”
Underprivileged children from throughout the area, she said, got to enjoy a winter wonderland as students from local high schools in and outside Hudson County volunteered their time to help the younger children and distribute the gifts.
Volunteers and kids, she said, both benefit from the holiday tradition.
Hartz Mountain Industries of Secaucus donated the space, lighting, and catering. Among the other numerous sponsors was the Meadowlands Exposition Center itself
Founded in 1986, NJAA is a statewide organization of apartment owners, managers, builders, developers and those involved in allied industries. The association is designed to advance and protect the welfare of the apartment industry in New Jersey. NJAA represents managers and owners of more than 180,000 rental units throughout the state. Rental housing is home to over one-third of all New Jersey families.
Kids from local high schools also sang Christmas carols as the younger kids came in.
“It really feels great to do this,” one teenager from the Lewis F. Cole Middle School in Fort Lee said.
Although students from Secaucus were supposed to attend, they cancelled due to the weather. Secaucus Mayor Mike Gonnelli, however, did make a brief appearance to kick off the holiday event.
“This is my third year and I got to meet a lot of unfortunate kids,” he said. “I’m glad they hosted it in Secaucus. We provided police, fire and EMS at no charge.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.