It is during what most consider the busiest months of the year that a group of volunteers dedicate their time and efforts to bringing Christmas spirit to some of the neediest children in New Jersey. In conjunction with the outreach efforts of the House of Mercy Mission in Newark, some of the cities’ neediest elementary and head start schools are identified. With their personal holidays preparations put on hold, the volunteers spend November and December organizing and separating toys and supervising their distribution to reach over 3,000 children.
According to 2012-2013 published reports from the watchdog Child Advocacy Group, Newark Kids Count, more than 70% of the children living in Newark classify as living between extreme poverty to low income. In the study, over 13,000 children classify as living in extreme poverty or below 50% of the Federal Poverty Level with their family income below $11,175. An additional 31, 374 children live in poverty or with a family income level below $22,350. And almost 50,000 children are classified as low income. (http://www.acnj.org/admin.asp?uri=2081&action=15&di=2386&ext=pdf&view=yes
The House of Mercy Mission, located on Springfield Avenue in Newark, has been relentless in their efforts to reach as many children as possible, especially at the holidays. Pastor Tilly Giresi founded “Tilly’s Kids” as a way to enrich the lives of children from the area. With “Tilly’s Kids” she offers the children an opportunity to experience year round events and milestones not normally afforded to them. It is for this program that she has become widely known, especially with the youth of Sussex County who volunteer through social services agencies like Pass it Along. (http://homm.ws/)
In Newark, however, she is known as someone who can make miracles happen, especially when it involves getting the right gift into the right hands. Under her guidance, this year like other years past, gifts were taken to children in grades PreK to 8th at Madison Ave Elementary School, Louise A. Spencer Elementary School, S. 17th Street Elementary School, and Cleveland Ave Elementary School. Also, the Mission provided gifts to three head start programs and to two early child development centers, ages PreK to 3rd grade. The gifts were hand delivered by teams of volunteers. On three separate days, volunteers and students from Sparta High School and Sparta Middle School collected and distributed toys to three of the elementary schools. Volunteers from High Point Regional School, also in Sussex County, took charge of donations for the fourth school.
Mary Bernat from Sparta who is a key behind-the-scenes organizer, had this to say when reflecting back on distribution day: “ If this is what the kids have to look forward to and if this day means so much, what an accomplishment on our parts but even more, we know that we have made such a difference in their lives.”
While the gift bags contain toys, books, sports balls and games, the most favorite item is often the practical and warm hat and pair of gloves. For the youth volunteers who assist in handing out the gifts, it always comes as a reality check to hear a child asks what gloves are for and ask for assistance in putting them on. And knowing that even for one day, they made thousands of children’s dreams come true is a powerful message that affirms their individual capabilities to enact positive change in the world.
This year, a last minute plea came from a parent liaison at Mount Vernon Elementary School asking Pastor Tilly for help to reach a staggering amount of children at their school. Those who know Pastor Tilly know that she will find a way. According to Pastor Tilly, providing to the 700 children at Mount Vernon was “the big miracle of the year.” She recounted with laughter thinking at the time, that she had better not tell her husband what she agreed to do. Suspecting she was up to something, she vaguely told him to “pray for a miracle” without giving him all the details. Pastor Tilly remembers thinking “I know I can’t do it, but God can.” And it is with this confidence that she was able to send two trucks loaded with toys to the overjoyed staff at the school the week before Christmas.
Besides the outreach to the elementary schools, The House of Mercy Mission provides a Christmas luncheon to the homeless population of Newark. Each year, more find out by word of mouth about this event and show up. This year, she had 150 men, woman and children as guests for what turned out to be a joyous occasion. To the delight of about 75 women, they received a new pocketbook with warm socks and toiletries. The men received socks and toiletries as well.
On Christmas Eve, two pallets of toys were delivered by the Mission to the Regional Diagnostic Center at Beth Israel Hospital and visits were made to the Maternity Ward and NICU. On Christmas Day, more gifts are distributed back at S. 17th Street Elementary which opens its’ doors to welcome neighborhood families seeking a warm meal and fellowship.
Students from Sparta Middle School and Helen Morgan Elementary School this year participated in “The Rubber Band Bracelet Project.” The students made over 1,000 colorful rubber band bracelets to distribute to students at the schools in Newark. Attached to each bracelet was a personal message of encouragement and motivation. It was this gift, low in cost but high in sentiment that touched the hearts of many of the recipients the most.
With local newspapers all too often reporting on shocking reports out of Newark involving children, readers often feels helpless in the face of such violence and tragedy. No one can be expected to find a solution to all the ills that plague society but also, no one should feel they are helpless to be part of a solution to a better future. There is a role and a purpose for everyone and with Pastor Tilly as a shining example of what can be accomplished, we can only hope that there will be brighter days ahead for many of New Jersey’s most vulnerable.
Peggy Bolgiano Fischer has an MSW (Master in Social Work) from University of Maryland with bachelor of arts from the Pennsylvania State University. She has lived in four states, moving along with her husband, Tim, and their four children. She came to Sparta 10 years ago as a reluctant southern transplant. Since then, she has learned that living in “Jersey” is what you make of it and she considers it not only a duty but an honor to advocate for those without a voice
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