MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ – Santa Claus dropped by The ARC Kohler School with presents for all the children in what has been an annual event for at least the past five years.
Santa’s visit on Thursday, Dec. 14, the presents and a Holiday Luncheon were all arranged by members of the Mountainside PBA Local 126 specifically for the children and staff of the school. The ARC Kohler School serves children and young adults with multiple developmental and intellectual disabilities, including Autism, Down Syndrome, and Cerebral Palsy.
Mountainside Police Lieutenant Joseph Giannuzzi said the event begins long before December, with each police officer purchasing a gift for a child attending the school. But, that’s just the beginning.
Each year students at the The ARC Kohloer School in Mountainside also pitch in and “donate gifts to the event from their student government body as a lesson in community service and leadership,” said Giannuzzi. As part of that lesson, one of their teachers brought several students to Police Headquarters to deliver the gifts and, while there, the students received a tour of the facility and Borough Hall.
Other gifts for the students are either purchased using funds from Mountainside PBA 126 or are donated by the Mountainside Police Athletic League, Giannuzzi said. While the officers wear their uniform when they visit the school, no tax money or police department funds are used to purchase the gifts or support the event, he said.
Mountainside PBA 126 is a nonprofit labor organization which represents all police officers employed by the Borough of Mountainside. The Mountainside Police Athletic League is a separate non profit community organization and their information can be found here.
"The event is for the special needs community however, it helps bring many groups and people together in doing so. It also helps expose our younger police officers to a side of life they may not yet be aware of," said Giannuzzi.
The students at the school aren’t the only people receiving gifts. Additional gifts are donated to the school which can then get them to families they serve who may be in need. Often families face high medical costs or, because of the constant care a child requires, are unable to have two parents working and are struggling to make ends meet. “We are very conscious not to leave out any siblings who sometimes can get lost in the mix with all the focus being sent in one direction,” he said.
Each year Santa is played by Mathew Costello, a private citizen and very involved in local community events throughout the year. Mountainside PBA 126 provides a gift for each child who is then called up by name by Santa. "The reaction to their names being called by Santa are at times priceless, our police officers and Santa look forward to it each year," the lieutenant said.
As for the logistics of the Santa’s visit to ARC Kohler School, the gifts are dropped off ahead of time and sorted and wrapped by school staff members who fit the child with the toy.
Mack Camera, in Springfield, provides photographers for the event who, at no cost, take a photo of the children and their parents or siblings with Santa. “We are told that for some of these families this is the only photo they have with Santa during the holiday season if the child cannot be easily transported to the mall or has sensory issues in large crowds,” said Giannuzzi, who added, "Mountainside PBA 126 is grateful for the participation of Mack Camera in our event."
The holiday lunch is either donated to the event by a local business, or purchased by Mountainside PBA 126 for the staff of the school. There is nearly a one-to-one ratio between staff and children, as many require their own paraprofessional. "The staff does a wonderful job with the children and their efforts and hard work are often overlooked," he said. Due to dietary restrictions and/or medical reasons the children of the school are unable to participate in the luncheon. This year Famous Dave's of Mountainside donated the lunch for the event.
“Everyone who participated leaves knowing they were able to give a little" to people who are often overlooked, Giannuzzi said.
Mountainside PBA 126 does more, however, to spread the holiday cheer, they visited Pediatria Healthcare for Kids, in Roselle Park on Dec. 21. The center cares for children with medical conditions that a typical daycare would not accept or be equipped to handle. A gift for each child is donated and our Santa appears to hand them out. Mountainside PBA 126 also donated three brand new winter coats for children who did not have one.