TOTOWA, NJ - A very special Christmas party is being planned this season, with the goal of bringing some extra holiday "sunshine" into the lives of those experiencing life's challenges.

In its fourth year, the event is to benefit patients of the pediatric hematology/oncology department of St. Joseph's Hospital by the Sunshine Collection. According to Tina Handal, organizer, the event is made possible through yearlong fundraising events by the Sunshine Collection.

"One of the things we do from the money we raise is to have this magical evening for the  patients and their families," Tina explained.

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Her daughter, Gabriella, started the collection in 2009 with hopes of "spreading lots of sunshine" and smiles to the children who are battling cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

"The collection has grown tremendously over the years and has become a true community effort," added Tina. "This party is an opportunity for everyone of all ages who has supported the foundation throughout the year to come together and lift the spirits of the patients and their families during the holiday season. Whether they are family, friends, local businesses, parishioners - it's just incredible how much support the community gives."

Fliers will be displayed and circulated throughout the communities, so residents can see the gift lists available. Volunteers are donating their time to fulfill the needs of the event.

"Volunteers will donate decorations, wrapping gifts, etc.," she explained. "It's the whole community coming together and making this a wonderful and memorable evening. It's to let them know that they're not alone, and that we care."

The event was traditionally held at Cortina's Restaurant in Paterson for the past several years. This year's holiday party will be held at the American Legion, located on Union Avenue in Totowa.

"Phil and his son Joe D'Amato, owners of Cortina Restaurant, were an incredible support of our Sunshine family. They're the ones who helped make our dream come true by making this party possible. They were supportive, especially the time when we were first looking for a place to hold the event when we first began it. Sadly, Phil passed away in April. He will missed so much and he was at every holiday party."

She added that the volunteers work very hard throughout the year to raise money for the hospital. The Handals work together with the staff at St. Joe's, in support of assisting with the collection and the holiday gathering each year to create an event that will ensure that everything is enjoyable and goes smoothly for the patients.

"They've all been an incredible support," she further added. "It's just a beautiful experience to witness all the volunteers coming together to create such a magical evening. You see them dressing up like elves and working towards making the evening perfect," she said. "They'll decorate the hall like a winter wonderland. Greg will be serenading us with his incredible voice with Christian playing along with the guitar. Magic Al and Shane will be doing magic for the children."

Specific gift requests are fulfilled, thanks to Gabriella, who wanted to make sure each patient got exactly what they requested. She also wanted to see to it that the family members receive gifts, not just the patients.

"These are the mothers, father, sisters, brothers, who are also going through the challenges of battling these diseases. It's not just their loved one suffering," Tina noted. "It's sad how so many in the community have felt the pain of a loved one suffering from cancer."

Gifts that are purchased do not need to be wrapped due to the time and dedication of the volunteers. They also will be making gingerbread houses and ornaments for the families. People can donate gift cards or whatever they can.

"We try as best we can to make it a fun, magical evening to lift their spirits. We'll have a delicious meal, along with desserts donated by Shop Rite of Passaic/Clifton. There will also be karaoke," she noted.
The volunteers have fun doing other fundraising events throughout the year, but this is the one event everyone looks forward to, according to Tina.

"We hope to continue this tradition each and every year," she added. "We are truly blessed to have such support from the community for this cause. We are also honored this year to have had the support from the residents and businesses of Woodland Park, the American Legion in Totowa, the CRS Foundation, Paterson Firefighters Association, Paterson Fire Officers Association. Also, Paterson firefighter Beth Fournier donated hundreds of stuffed animals for the patients."

Additionally, members of Girl Scout Troop No. 56 in Totowa will be volunteering.

"The girls have been volunteering with 'Sunshine' to help with the party and donate gifts for the patients," Tina noted.

Next on the event list for the Sunshine Foundation is for a carnival to be held sometime this spring.

"We're currently looking for a location to hold this event and if anyone knows of a location that we can use please contact us."

Donations for the Sunshine holiday party are due by Dec. 9. For a convenient drop-off location, contact Tina Handal at 973-432-0591.

The holiday party, which is a private party for patients and their families, will be held at the American Legion, located at 180 Union Boulevard in Totowa, on Monday, Dec. 19 beginning at 6 p.m.