By Amy Batista, Special Writer
HIGHTSTOWN — For the 49th year, Rise hosted its annual holiday party during which gifts were handed out this past Saturday.
“Rise has distributed holiday gifts since we opened our doors 49 years ago,” said Executive Director Leslie Koppel.
Around 850 children in need this holiday season received gifts.
Senior case manager Anna Vasquez said that 850 gifts were given to children at the party and 21 individual families were sponsored, separately from the program.
“I was honored to get the job handed to me,” she said. “It is a lot of work, but when you see a child smiling at you as you hand them the present, it is all worth it.”
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.
“Rise solicits gifts from donors and matches them with individual children and entire families,” Ms. Koppel said. “Over the past decade, the program has doubled and every year we get more inspired by the smiling and joyful faces of the children.”
She said that The Junior League of Greater Princeton began hosting a holiday party 14 years ago to coordinate with the gift program. They provide snacks, craft activities, music and pictures with Santa.
“It’s great fun for the whole family to enjoy together,” she said.
She said that when parents, grandparents and caregivers come in to receive the presents with the children, many are tearful.
“The holidays can be so overwhelming and stressful for parents and grandparents who want their children and grandchildren to feel the joy and the warmth of the season,” said Ms. Koppel. “The relief on their faces when they realize that their kids are happy and excited is wonderful.”
Many feel as if their prayers have been answered, she added.
For Ms. Vasquez, the highlight is making families happy.
“A lot of our struggling families are having a hard time financially and they cannot provide a present for their child during the holidays,” she said. “We remove that burden and it feels good to be able to do that.”
Seeing those kids smiling at me as I give them a present or a child’s mother giving me a hug for making her life a bit easier makes this all worth it, she added.
The gifts were dropped off during the week of the holiday party to the First United Methodist Church of Hightstown where volunteers spent the week wrapping the gifts.
Ben Infosino, of East Windsor, a member of the First Methodist Church who organized what is called the Giving Tree, which is the wrapping of the Rise presents at the church for the second year in a row.
“I have been part of the program for six years but this is my second year co-running it with Anna,” he said.
He said that the program has grown significantly over the years.
“It began in the basement of the Rise office and grew to the point where it needed a bigger setting,” he said. “It reached 850 kids this year, more than any previous year.”
He said that his favorite part is on Friday when they bag all of the presents.
“I see so many different kinds of people working together to move so many presents,” he said. “This year people from Haldeman Ford, Hightstown High School, Rise, ShopRite, and so many more places worked together.”
The charity would not have been able to grow to the size it is now without all the help, he added.
Volunteers from local businesses including Haldeman Ford of East Windsor, Hightstown High School and ShopRite also participated in helping package gifts and load them onto trucks to deliver them to Grace N. Rogers for the party.
Rise started asking for holiday gift donations before Thanksgiving.
“We register children and families in our office at 116 North Main Street,” Ms. Koppel said. “Registration starts in early October and each family meets with a case manager to apply.”
As well as income verification we assess the family’s needs and let them know about the Rise Food Pantry, Rise Summer Camp and assistance that maybe available, she added.
“When a family registers we fill out a wish list for each child,” she said. “This includes the gender, age and size of the child. Also, we ask for their favorite colors, musical groups, characters (e.g. Dora, Barbie, Thomas the Train).”
She said that most children and parents ask for coats, boots, pajamas and other necessities.
“It is refreshing to know that behind the delightful gifts were so many special people who took the time to help others and create happiness,” she said.
Wendy Detweiler, of East Windsor, said that after learning about the Rise Christmas Giving Tree her family was excited to donate.
“The child we sponsored was a 13-year-old boy who wanted only a jacket or gift card for Christmas,” she said. “We purchased the jacket knowing it will keep him warm this winter.”
She said after hearing this her mom called and the family also sponsored a 2-year-old girl who asked for a jacket and a doll.
“It’s so nice being able help people in need in our community,” she said. “We’ve all been in a place of need and it’s nice to know neighbors are there to give a helping hand.”
Rob Morris, sales manager of Haldeman Ford of East Windsor has been helping out for five years.
“This year we had four of us including myself,” he said. “We had 36 children that we provided gifts for.”
He said that at the company’s sales meeting, they hand out the kids’ wish lists to salespeople, service technicians and managers the Friday before the party and he “loads up the sleigh and brings them down to the Methodist Church.”
“We get to the church where we bag and organize gifts numerically so that when we get them on the Shop Rite trucks when they come out on the right order,” he said.
He said it is tough for him to get out of the store on a Saturday so this is his way to help out.
“I would really love to be giving out the toys,” he said. “As soon as the beginning of December hits, it’s part of our daily routine at the holiday time to take care of the kids.”
John Riggs, of Monroe, has been part of the program for four years.
“I see it as a way for kids to have a joyous holiday,” he said. “When you see the sea of presents that people have given knowing that they will not get any personal thank-you it really warms my heart. This year I had three kids. I normally take two, but I thought it was time to grow it.”
He said he got two girls and one boy. “This is the first year that they were at the 13-14 age group,” he said, adding he always had younger kids. He said that one wanted shoes and one wanted pajamas.
“I had to pick out things that I thought 14-year-olds would find tolerable,” he said. “Not like Barney, but things that are more stylish. I spent more time picking out the shoes than anything else.”
Mr. Riggs was impressed by what he saw in the Methodist Church.
“When you see all the 800 gifts put in order it knocks you for a loop,” he said. “To think that, that many people gave something is so impressive.”
It’s child specific which is very unique because you know what the child would like and they get to make a choice, he added. “I like that better then giving a generic gift.”
The Hightstown High School football team lent its strength and support as well.
“In a continuation of their growing partnership with the Rise Food Pantry, and in the spirit of the season, members of the Hightstown High School Football team lent a hand in the preparation and wrap-up of the Rise Holiday Party,” said Wendy McDade of the HHS Rams Football Parents Club.
The strength of the team came in handy to move 800-plus presents from the collection point of the First Methodist Church of Hightstown to the Grace Norton Rogers Elementary School, the venue for the party, she added.
“Many hands made light work of the community festivity, which worked to ensure local children a happy holiday,” she said. “Post-party, the young men assisted the staff of Rise in transporting their gear back to the Rise offices.”
The party was held at the Grace Rogers School located at 380 Stockton Street on Dec. 12.
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.
The East Windsor Education Association hosted a table during the party and provided a table full of goodies for each child to select one thing from ranging from a doll, coloring book, chocolates, and more.
“EWEA applied for funding to provide gifts to the community from the New Jersey Education Association,” said East Windsor Education Association President Ellen Ogintz. “We received funding in the form of a PRIDE grant.”
She said that the grant money comes from educators’ dues money and goes right back to the community.
“We gave out 500 small gifts,” she said, adding that the teachers volunteered to distribute the gifts.
“We want our community to know that the teachers of the East Windsor Education Association care about our students and work many hours after school and on weekends,” she said.
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 and an area where a story could be read to them.
A group of East Windsor Area Girl Scouts set up a station to make ornaments.
Other activities included making coloring holiday pages, tin stencil foil pictures, beaded ornaments and more.
For more information, visit www.rise-community-services.org.
By Amy Batista, Special Writer