NEWARK, NJ — The streets surrounding the Ironbound Little League's home field were teeming with smiling children in the days right before Christmas. For hundreds of kids, the baseball playing grounds became their own neighborhood field of dreams, where hopes of holiday gifts became real through a community united to give to those in need.
"They didn't even get a gift yet, but look at these kids' faces," said Neil Midtgard, CEO of Down Neck Community Group, the nonprofit parent organization behind the Ironbound Little League, as he watched the line of expectant children with their parents at the corner of Hanover and Chestnut streets on a Saturday afternoon, waiting to enter the league's indoor batting cage to get a free gift. "We started this just for the children of the Ironbound, but they come from all over. This is their Christmas. And it's only gotten bigger."
Down Neck Community Group works with the Ironbound Little League, the Ironbound Irish-American Organization, and the Iron Knights Motorcycle Club as the primary community sponsors for the annual December event that focuses on the approximately 4,000 students ages K - 4 years old who attend the Ironbound's public, parochial, and private schools.
What began as a holiday charity event that helped approximately 50 children over 20 years ago has exponentially grown to now provide free gifts, cookies, and hot cocoa to more than 600 children.
George Lodato, president of Iron Knights Motorcycle Club, and fellow club member Joe Nutile looked tough in their biker vests as they helped to hand out Christmas presents. It turns out that at least in their case, looks can truly be deceiving.
"We were all kids once, and we all want something to look forward to on Christmas morning," said Nutile as he dodged a volunteer dressed as an elf running to get more presents from Santa's stash.
"Look, talk to Santa for five minutes. Just have a little heart-to-heart with the man. It makes you feel like a kid again," Nutile added. "And then we'll get back on our bikes."
Anyone who has been Down Neck for more than five minutes knows that parking is at a premium. But one local mom knows that the guy with the red suit and the beard is connected.
"Santa's cool. He parks his sleigh on the roof, come on," said Kristen Lescano, standing with her husband Rob and holding her one-year-old son, Zachary. "He knows people."
For the people who moved away from the neighborhood years, even decades before, the annual Ironbound Little League gift giveaway event stirs up memories that open their hearts when they return to help out.
"I'm from this neighborhood. I can remember when we were kids and we were very poor. Other organizations helped us then. I can remember us getting a basket of food and being very grateful for it," said volunteer Nancy Distasio as she handed out cups of hot cocoa. "I can't think of a better place to pay it forward."
Those people present who benefited from the combined community effort noted what the work meant to them.
"At Christmas time, we are all brothers and sisters. It's a holiday anyone can share," said Romel Bravo, who arrived in Newark from Guayaquil, Ecuador one month ago. "I'm very thankful for all this."
Bravo's five-year-old granddaughter, Alexa, was thankful most of all for the presence of one person.
"I'm so happy," Alexa said, holding a new toy in one hand and a hot cocoa in another. "I love Santa so much."
Joe Dugan, a member of the Ironbound Irish-American Association who stood in as Santa for the day, admitted he dressed up in order to reflect that emotion back.
"I grew up here, and I love kids. You see the smiles on these kids' faces, it's heartwarming, especially at this time of year," Dugan said as he readied himself for another set of giggling kids about to manhandle him. "We've got so much problems in the world, and look what good they get here. It's great for the community."
Bobby Olohan, the past president of the Ironbound Irish-American Association, noted that at a time of great strife in American life, the transmission of goodwill from generation to generation in the neighborhood means more than ever.
"At the end of the day, we're all people. Everybody has their values, and family time is important, no matter what background you may be," Olohan said. "This is a special time. It's when people put their differences aside and enjoy the holiday season together."
"I played Little League at this field, and now I'm back here with my son in the spring, coaching him. It's the cycle of life," Olohan said. "You've got to give back. That's what this neighborhood is about - giving back."
Toward the end of the afternoon, local Ironbound mom Manuela Sculark watched her children Maxwell and Leila run around, amped up with new gift glee. After brother and sister clamorously claimed that they were nice, not naughty, their mother expressed what the annual event meant to her family.
"The chance to see Santa, get a picture with Santa, get excited, get a book, get a toy, see their friends from school, that means everything to them," Sculark said. "And that happiness means everything to me. Their joy is my life."