By Michele J. Kuhn
RUMSON – There’s no doubt about it, the holiday spirit is alive and well in the borough’s department of public works.
Each year for the past 14, department members transform themselves into Santa’s helpers. They set up a Christmas tree, put on some coffee and Christmas music, throw open the door of a deep garage to accept hundreds of gifts that then will be donated to The Salvation Army in Red Bank and Family & Children’s Services in Long Branch.
Each year they try to collect more gifts than the last. During the past few years they have collected 1,000 presents. This year’s goal was to surpass that at 1,100; they were able to gather about 750 on Friday, Dec. 13 and Saturday, Dec. 14. The snowy weather and economy may be the reason, said Larry D’Angelo, an assistant foreman with the department.
While the members of the department don’t get to help give gifts to children, the public works employees do get to accept presents from Rumson kids who come, usually with their parents, to donate toys.
“We try to explain to the little kids that the toys will go to kids that don’t have what they do,” D’Angelo said.
The drive is “extremely important” to Family & Children’s Services, said Samantha White, the organization’s manager of volunteer services. “As a program we help more than 500 families … We are able to provide for more families than we might have because of the Rumson Department of Public Works donations.”
White estimates that the Rumson toy drive means that about 75 of their families in the organization’s Operation Sleigh Bells program will have a merrier Christmas.
“We’re very happy when their donation arrives,” she said. “They are a great group of guys who are generous with their time … and have been very helpful to us over the years.”
Major Elizabeth Rogan of The Salvation Army in Red Bank agrees.
“The donation “means a lot to us,” she said. “It is a real blessing.”
While the donation arrives at The Salvation Army after it holds its gift distribution, Rogan said it is a welcomed addition for the organization. Some of the gifts will go to people this who were not included in the distribution; the rest will go in storage for next year. “It is a blessing to be able to use those toys,” she said.
The annual donation is “amazing. It’s a good amount of things that they deliver … Without them, I don’t know what we would do. “People are very generous,” Rogan said.
The idea for the toy drive was that of Mark Wellner, now the borough’s superintendent of public works. It came about during a group discussion 14 years ago.
“It was his brainchild,” D’Angelo said. “He started it to help children in the area and it took off from there.”
The public works employees volunteer their time to collect the toys after work on Friday and during the day on Saturday and are frequently assisted by family and friends.
Last Friday, 10-year-old Hunter Leonard accompanied his dad Tim, a public works foreman, to the toy drive. Leonard brought his son “because he loves helping out … It teaches him to be available and help give back to people in need by volunteering his time.”
“I’m helping bring toys in for kids who need them,” Hunter said after carrying an armload of donated presents and placing them under the tree. “It’s good helping others.”
The toy drive “is a great thing,” said James Mellish, an assistance foreman who is also the borough’s recycling coordinator and the clean communities program director. His daughter, Gina, came with him to help.
“I think we’re very lucky here. We have an incredible crew. The guys are great and that’s how we get all this done.”
The word about the drive is spread through the media, schools, via word-of-mouth and “a lot of posters” put in borough shops, Mellish said.
Toys range from kites and stuffed animals to “nice bicycles.” Sometimes, when residents have been unable to shop for toys, they will drop off checks for the toy drive.