By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
TINTON FALLS – Many are familiar with the concerts Holiday Express brings to people throughout New Jersey each holiday season, but that’s not all there is to the organization that’s celebrating its 21st season.
Holiday Express is more than just a musical group that will perform 63 concerts in two months this season. Behind every Holiday Express event – with talented musicians, dedicated volunteers, a party atmosphere and jubilant guests – is a fully stocked, highly organized warehouse.
With more than 1,400 volunteers, including 100 singers and musicians, they visit a host of places including soup kitchens, developmental centers and homes for mentally and physically challenged adults and children, bringing with them lots of music, food, presents and joy.
The 8,500-square-foot warehouse at 968 Shrewsbury Ave. holds all the makings of a successful Holiday Express event. Every event guest receives a gift bag – a backpack or tote bag that is packed at the warehouse. The bags are stuffed with presents such as a scarf, hat, gloves, blanket, socks, toiletries, playing cards, stuffed animal and candy. Each bag is filled depending on the audience and in accordance of stipulations set by the organization.
All year long volunteers solicit and collect donations and store them in the warehouse. By November the place is teaming with cartons of gift bags, pallets of water and sodas, boxes of snack packs, including the 10,000 bags from chips that will accompany the sub sandwiches Jersey Mike’s will donate for the events. There are also racks of new stylish coats for distribution and shelves of gifts for raffles. Bags filled with post-Halloween candy will provide an added dose of cheer and sugar for many Holiday Express guests.
In addition, there are boxes of items that organizations, schools, Scouts and individuals have collected for the gift bags. This season Holiday Express will give out 16,000 gift bags.
Bringing the Holiday Express party to 63 locations requires manpower, goodwill and a greatly organized team.
In coordinated precision, volunteers of all ages congregate at the warehouse to pack the gift bags. Most mornings a range of individuals show up; after school there are groups, troops and clubs. Some days businesses and organizations bring employees to the operation. In addition, volunteers return year after year to pack up donations, load trucks and drive to events.
Pat Wotton of Middletown says more than a decade ago she was one of the beneficiaries of Holiday Express’ kindness. “They did a concert for 9/11 families,” says Wotton, whose husband Rodney died in the 2001 World Trade Center attack, “and music was really painful for me (at that time).” But she was touched by the joy Holiday Express spread and began showing up at the warehouse to help pack the gift bags.
“I would do it anonymously,” she says, without signing in. “It seemed like a good way to be involved in something but I didn’t need to be social.”
But Wotton’s involvement grew as she took on more volunteer responsibilities; for the last couple of years she has run the warehouse. In addition, she’s on the board of trustees and coordinates a few events each season.
“I wanted to give back,” she says. As a Catholic she says she’s been taught to give of herself. “In my own way I’m fulfilling that … I can’t sing or dance but I have organizational skills and I can get people together and get organized and see (the project) to fruition.”
Trudy Parton, of Rumson says she’s “only an elf” and comes to pack gift bags one or two days a week. She has been a supporter and volunteer for Holiday Express since its beginning 21 years ago when her daughter worked her first job for Holiday Express founder Tim McLoone at his running store. “I know how important it is to help other people,” says Parton, who now hopes to recruit her granddaughter to help at the warehouse.
Another packer, Reda Boll of Red Bank, been volunteering for four years and enjoys the camaraderie of the assembly-line style of packing gifts. She has made friends, swapped recipes and enjoys seeing familiar faces every season.
“This is an unbelievable cause,” says Boll, who has a granddaughter with autism and can appreciate the efforts made by Holiday Express. “You’ve got to give back.”
For more information about donating or volunteering, visit www.holidayexpress.org. Gift bag needs for this season include toothbrushes, toothpaste and new heavy-duty new men’s athletic socks. Volunteers can come and donations can be dropped off at the warehouse between 9:30 a.m. and noon weekdays.