WOODBRIDGE, NJ - Elks Central District held their Annual Special Children Charity Ball on Feb. 1 at the Woodbridge Elks Lodge, 665 Rahway Avenue in Woodbridge. The special guests of honor were Ambassador 17-year-old Brett Daniel Berardi, sponsored by Carteret Lodge, and Alternate Ambassador 11-year-old Brianna Feeney, sponsored by South Plainfield Lodge.
"I am so glad to be here tonight," New Jersey Elks State Chairperson for the Special Children Committee, Teri Payton, announced to the ballroom filled with attendees. "It's so nice to be with all of you tonight, honoring Brett and Brianna, since they are children of your district. I also want to thank everyone in this district because, as state chair, I know that I can always count on District 4. Not only do you support all the state projects, but you always go above and beyond."
Many South Plainfield Elks members came out to the very special event. Feeney's two chaperones from the South Plainfield Elks Lodge, Suzanne Purcell and James Buckelew, members of the South Plainfield Elks Special Children’s Committee, also attended.
"We always look forward to the Elks Special Children Charity Ball and it's so exciting that Brianna is the Alternate Ambassador this year," Purcell said. "Brianna is a loving child full of joy and it's wonderful to be able to share this experience with her."
"I want to welcome you all here and to our Ambassadors who are here," said Francis J. Decibus, PGLC, PSP Advisor to Special Children's Committee for 18 years. "We love you. We're glad you're here. Thank you for helping us and for giving so much to those who give so much to us through their love and affection."
Several of Feeney's South Plainfield supporters also came out for the event. Mayor Matthew Anesh and his wife Kimberly Anesh, Council President Christine Faustini and her husband Louis, Councilman Pete Smith and his wife Sandi, and Councilman Derryck White were among those who attended the ball to celebrate Feeney's role as Alternate Ambassador.
"It was a pleasure to attend this inspiring event," Faustini said. "The Elks give back in so many ways, but what the Special Children’s Committee does is most exceptional. It was such a privilege to share the experience, growth of the children and the lives they have touched. Being with them the evening of the charity ball was a gift to all who attended."
"The Annual Elks Special Children’s Ball was a fitting and amazing celebration of the uniqueness of two amazing children," White said. "It was a night that made me proud to be a member of the Benevolent Order of Elks."
The Ambassador Program is one of the Elks’ major statewide projects for children with special needs. Each year, four ambassadors and four alternate ambassadors are selected by the Elks State Special Children’s Committee. The Elks Central District is composed of Carteret, Colonia, East Brunswick, Edison, Metuchen, New Brunswick, Piscataway, South Amboy, South Plainfield, Watchung Hills and Woodbridge.
After a delicious buffet dinner, Berardi was asked to address the crowd as the Special Children's Committee Ambassador along with his Carteret Lodge sponsor, Patti Healey-Golino. Ambassadors appear at events in lodges throughout the state of New Jersey to share the good work of the Special Children Committee. The ambassador also does projects to help Elks special children.
"Brett did several fundraisers himself," Healey-Golino said. "He cooked, he prepared, he was at the lodge, had people donating money, and he designated jobs. Brett really worked very hard to raise money to help fill a need at Elks Camp Moore. One of the things Brett thought was missing at camp was a little entertainment for the kids, so he decided that karaoke machines for both the older children and the younger children would be appropriate."
Elks Camp Moore in Haskell is a sleep away camp for children with disabilities. Children with special needs ages seven through twenty-one years old can go away to camp for a week that is fully paid for by the lodge that sponsors the child. Children each have their own camp counselor who stays with them the entire week.
Camp counselors travel from as far away as Europe to spend their summer with the children. Each week brings a new group of campers. Many counselors are in college abroad studying to work with those who have disabilities or are special needs’ teachers.
"Brianna absolutely loves going to Camp Moore," Patricia Trenchak Feeney said. "She has an amazing time with her camp counselor who from England whom she has had for several years and adores. We stay in touch throughout the year. Camp Moore is a home away from home with wonderful staff that become family."
When asked what inspired him to generate funds to purchase the karaoke machines as they were wheeled into the ballroom for all to admire, Berardi replied that he thought of the idea because he loved the Camp Moore sing-a longs at night. When asked how he raised the funds, Berardi replied that he had taco night, a bake sale at the pig roast, bracelets sales, and chicken and waffle night.
"Each district goes up to Camp Moore every year to cook a dinner or lunch," Payton said. "Anyone who has not been up to there, please take advantage of that trip. Go up and see the camp while the campers are there because it's an experience you will never forget."
South Plainfield Exalted Ruler Christine Sauer was then called to the podium to speak on behalf of Brianna Feeney.
"Thank you, Woodbridge Lodge, for hosting the Special Children's Charity Ball," Sauer said. "It is my pleasure as the current Exalted Ruler of South Plainfield Lodge to welcome our Alternate Ambassador Brianna Feeney. She has been a very integral part of our life."
The Elks have been a part of the Feeney family's lives since they helped contribute to the construction of a handicap ramp for their home. In 2016, the Elks were one of several organizations who helped fundraise for a handicap accessible van, making a large donation to contribute to the cause. Always a support and friend of the Feeneys, and countless others in need in the community, the Elks mission is to be of service.
"For many years, Brianna has been one of our special children, has visited us at family picnics, has taken part in lodge life," Sauer said. "Her mother, Patti Feeney, is also one of our publicists and does a fantastic job at all of our events. And through the years, it's been a give and take. Knowing Brianna has given us much pleasure, and we have been able to help her along the way because of the hard work of the Special Children's Committee. It's a commitment to be able to do fundraisers, to be able to help people, and just to get to know the families also."
"So I am very pleased to have her as the Alternate Ambassador," Sauer said. "We are very proud, as a lodge, to have her in our community. We wish you the best happy, and healthy year for your family and for Brianna. Thank you very much!"
After everyone spoke, the lodges were given the opportunity to each present a gift to Berardi and Feeney. Gifts of checks, cash and gift cards were given to the children, who accepted graciously.
"The Elks have been our guardian angels," Patricia Trenchak Feeney said. "They are so giving and constantly look for ways to help others. They never look for praise or recognition. The South Plainfield Elks Lodge members are family. It is rare to find such a selfless group of individuals who truly care and want to help. We are so grateful for all that they do for us and the South Plainfield community."
The evening progressed with dancing and dessert. The Ambassador and Alternate Ambassador, along with the Elks members, supporters and families, were treated to an evening they will never forget.
"Brianna Feeney was honored as the Special Children Committee Alternative Ambassador," White said. "However, seeing Bri receive her award was not the best part. It was reflecting on the strides she has made. The most memorable one of the night was seeing her standing up on the dance floor and moving to the music. It brought smiles to Bri’s families faces and everyone who was able to see it. It was inspiring. In a sentence, what a wonderful night, and I feel blessed I was able to share in the Feeney family’s special night."
The evening came to a close with plenty of smiles and an abundance of joy for a beautiful evening celebrating two very special children, the powerful impact they have on the world, their grateful families, and the Elks, a group of humble individuals happy to be of service.
"Thank you for the chairmen of the lodges and to the lodges themselves for your support over these so many years," Decibus said. "Thank you all for what you do for the special children because we continue to put a smile on their faces. God bless you all."