By Amy Batista, Special Writer
HIGHTSTOWN — Rise, a local nonprofit organization, delivered happiness to 837 children in need this holiday season by giving gifts.
"This year the community was so generous starting early on," said Leslie Koppel, Rise executive director. "It’s just really heartwarming to do this. We really appreciate the generosity of the community."
This area is a small area but it’s so spirited when it comes to giving and taking care of each other, she added.
For the 48th year, Rise hosted its annual holiday party in which the gifts were handed out. Prior to the event, registered children gave their Christmas wishes to Rise, and the organization went to work. Members of the community donated to the program.
"It’s our biggest year," Ms. Koppel said, adding that about 75 more children received gifts this year.
"This year we did more adopted families," she said. "Last year, we had about a dozen and this year we have over 40 families, entire families, that were adopted."
They are either coming to the office or some of them are going to local businesses who adopted them and will be doing a lunch with them, she said.
She said for the parents it’s a relief.
"That’s the biggest worry this time of year," she said. "Your kids want, want, want and it’s hard. To be able to give them something and not worry about it. It’s a gift not only for gift but for the parents."
The gifts were dropped off the week before the Dec. 13 holiday party to the First United Methodist Church of Hightstown where volunteers spent the week wrapping the gifts. Volunteers from local businesses including Haldeman Ford, Church & Dwight, and ShopRite also participated in helping package gifts and load them onto trucks to deliver them to Grace N. Rogers for the party.
For her, the highlight is when the kids pick up their presents.
"Their faces are unbelievable," she said, adding they lit up.
"We asked for donors a lot earlier so it was much more organized and we had all the kids covered," she said, adding as people registered they had donors waiting.
More people knew about it, she added.
Rise started asking for holiday gift donations before Thanksgiving.
"People started shopping early and they took more kids (to get gifts for)," she said.
Casey Shedlock, of East Windsor, a church member was volunteering at the church packing presents to load onto the trucks to go to school for the holiday party.
"It’s nice to come and see all the gifts that people decide to give to the children that need them," said Ms. Shedlock. "It’s nice to see that they are going to make Christmas bigger for hundreds of children."
She said the highlight for her was just seeing all the gifts.
"That really is the best part," she said.
Erin Knauer, 13, of East Windsor was also volunteer to help pack up the gifts at the church.
"It’s nice to see how people are caring during the season to give to the less fortunate," said Erin.
Chris Infosino, 14, of East Windsor, said it was nice to help out especially his big brother, Ben, who was organizing the gift wrapping and packing of the gifts at the church this year.
Ben Infosino, of East Windsor, replaced Ed Barber who previously organized what is called the Giving Tree, which is the wrapping of the Rise presents at the church.
"I’ve been volunteering for four years now," said Mr. Infosino. "This is the first year I’ve taken it over completely from Ed."
He said it wouldn’t be possible without the people who donate and the people who come and help.
They started wrapping presents on Monday.
"It’s nice to see the next generation rising up," said Pastor Heidi Bak of the First United Methodist Church of Hightstown.
Donna Dalrymple, of Bensalem, PA has been volunteering every basically from the start.
"It’s just the greatest thing to see all of it," said Ms. Dalrymple. "I have a bunch of fun."
She even uses her vacation days so she can come and help.
"It’s for the kids," she said. "Watching people come in and look at the sanctuary filled with everything going wow."
Pastor Bak said she wants to say "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
She said she had a lot of people coming back today just to take a picture.
"I think they needed to see the goodness of people," she said. "I think all these present represent the goodness of people and there is still goodness."
They needed the hope and so it was for everybody, she added.
She said it’s really nice when you are able to keep it in town and make it personal.
"We make it personal and we make it tangible," she said.
The party was held at the Grace Rogers School located at 380 Stockton Street on Dec. 13.
Lines extended down the aisles into three separate groups as families eagerly awaited to find out what gift was in store for their loved ones. Presents were showcased on the school’s stage.
People said, "Thank you," as volunteers retrieved gifts and brought them to the children waiting at designated tables with their parents.
Hightstown resident Ana Marie Arellano said that they are "very thankful."
After receiving gifts, families went down to the cafeteria to celebrate.
The Junior League of Greater Princeton members greeted the children and their parents as they entered the cafeteria and provided refreshments.
The Greater Hightstown Juniorettes, members of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, provided face painting for youngsters.
A group of East Windsor Area Girl Scouts set up a station to make bookmarks.
Other activities included making ornaments, coloring holiday bags, and more.
NJ Dance Fitness demonstrated some Zumba moves for attendees.
For more information, visit www.rise-community-services.org.
By Amy Batista, Special Writer