HAZLET –Thursday night was the grand finale for the RAINE Foundation’s holiday drive, the reward of many thousands of hours of work by over 500 local volunteers.
Forty-one Santa Clauses, each with his entourage of elves, set out to surprise hundreds of children in pre-registered homes spanning Sayreville to Asbury Park – over 392 stops in all. Most were escorted by at least 30 different fire companies, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, which created an unusual and exciting scene as they rolled out of the RAINE warehouse parking lot on Route 35 around 7 p.m.
Trailing behind them were vans packed with sacks of presents for each child’s parent or guardian to discreetly hold on to until Christmas. Each sack contained personalized gifts purchased and wrapped by local people the families would never meet.
“The faces, when you come in! I feel guilty, I get more out of it than anyone else,” said Paul Coughlin, moments before he set out in a red Santa suit in a vehicle driven by Mike Lenscak of Hazlet, accompanied by his elf, Holly Schult of Keyport.
In its nearly 20 years, this year’s holiday toy drive is the biggest ever, said longtime RAINE Foundation board leader Garry Foltz. Last year, the organization provided gifts for 1,100 children. This year, it extended its reach to more than 1,500. “This is, by far, the most gifts we have ever delivered,” he said while thanking the crowd earlier in the evening.
Foltz, the owner of Buhler Auto in Hazlet, gratefully acknowledged auto dealer Ray Catena for lending his entire, vacant building at 2931 Route 35 for the project – the second year in a row. “Your heart is bigger than this building,” Foltz said. He noted Catena’s daughter, Sandy, sponsored 165 bikes destined for children. Other auto dealers pitching in with transportation vehicles and donations were Straub of Hazlet and Nissan of Keyport.
Also receiving a round of applause was RAINE’s newest angel, Mary Ellen Harris of the Golden Dome Foundation in Holmdel, which fulfilled the wish lists of 100 local children.
For every wrapped present delivered by RAINE volunteers Thursday night, there is a story behind it.
Often, it has to do with a family’s job loss, lack of money, illness, or a rough patch in life.
RAINE co-founder Matt Dickens said the highlight for him this year was finding a way to bring a little happiness to a Hazlet family whose 18 month-old has a brain tumor.
“They don’t really have a need, but we wanted to help them,” Dickens said.
Because the little girl’s immune system is low, RAINE learned she would not be able to see Santa Claus this Christmas.
“So we actually have someone from Hazlet First Aid that will go in, fully masked,” he said. “And she will get to meet Santa.”