By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
LINCROFT – Special is a word that seems to apply every holiday season to a dedicated group of volunteers and musicians known as Holiday Express.
The members of Holiday Express come together dozens of times each season to create very special holiday events for groups of very special people.
During an event at Christian Brothers Academy last week they entertained and delighted 260 guests from Easter Seals.
Guests, caretakers, CBA students and volunteers danced and sang along to all the holiday favorites during a two-hour party. With subs provided by Jersey Mike’s, donated snacks and cupcakes, partygoers enjoyed face painting, rub-on tattoos and the music of Holiday Express as they celebrated with friends, elves and special guest, The Grinch. Each guest received a gift bag.
The event for Easter Seals, an organization that provides services, education and outreach to people with autism and other disabilities, was just one of the 60 concerts Holiday Express is staging this season.
From Nov. 13 through Christmas Eve – when they will entertain some 2,000 people at three different soup kitchens – the volunteer musicians, coordinators and helpers bring the season’s joy to folks who may not have a lot of joy in their lives.
“That means about two concerts a day for 35 days,” says Doug Pignataro, executive director of Holiday Express.
Holiday Express, which was founded in 1993 by local musician and restaurateur Tim McLoone, has grown from a small group of volunteers visiting 10 charities to a massive goodwill operation that touches the lives of thousands of people throughout the metropolitan area.
With a roster of 1,400 volunteers, including 100 talented singers and musicians, the group brings music, meals and festivities to adults and children in all sorts of circumstances. They visit residences for mentally and physically challenged adults, children’s hospitals, those in addiction and recovery programs and homeless shelters.
“Often it’s an underserved population,” Pignataro says of the audiences they entertain.
Although Holiday Express’ concert schedule makes for a whirlwind holiday season, volunteers work all year to coordinate events and solicit and collect donations to store in the organization’s Tinton Falls warehouse. School, scout and community groups hold drives to collect gift-bag items. Corporations donate goods, restaurants and vendors provide meals and a community of people give their time and money.
As the holiday season grows closer, volunteers assemble goodies bags, which can be backpacks stuffed with toys, toiletries, blankets, socks, hats, and other necessities, depending on the age and situation of the events’ guests.
The organization assembles and distributes 15,000 gift bags each season.
Another important part of Holiday Express is the Giving Partner Program, through which generous groups – from corporations to families and neighbors – are matched with charities to fulfill a specific gift wish, such as therapy equipment, kitchen equipment or game systems for clients.
Additionally, Holiday Express awards three academic scholarships annually to students overcoming extraordinary circumstances. Since 2000 it has awarded more than $430,000 to students.
Maureen Staub, one of the coordinators of the Easter Seals event, has been a volunteer with Holiday Express for a long time and now serves on its board of trustees. She finds the guests’ excitement and smiles make the experience so rewarding.
“I think we engage them in ways that other organizations don’t,” she says. “The best part is the dancing!”
During the first event she attended years ago, Staub was surprised when a large, exuberant man suddenly pulled her onto the dance floor. “I was taken back at first,” she says, but then realized he was just delighted by the music and to be part of the party. “A lot of these people just want to fit in.”