WARREN, NJ – Some 80 student athletes from Watchung Hills Regional High School (WHRHS) participated in December in a seasonal Toy Drive, helping to collect some 400 toys, and then helping them to be distributed to nearly as many children and families who benefit from the Autism Healthcare Collaborative (AHC) of Warren Township.

On Saturday, Dec. 21, at the Bridgewater Sports Arena, the student athletes and AHC families and caregivers enjoyed an afternoon, volunteering to give seasonal greetings, help Santa distribute toys and gifts, and help AHC children and young adults to enjoy the pure fun and thrill of ice skating.

The volunteering student athletes were from the WHRHS Warrior teams of Ice Hockey, Lacrosse, Baseball, Softball and Girls Basketball. This is the fourth year the WHRHS students have been involved in this community event. 

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WHRHS Athletic Director Dan Root said, "I am incredibly proud of the efforts of our student-athletes in support of this event.  It was extremely rewarding watching them work with the kids both on and off the ice.  I am hopeful that next year, we will have even more support for this wonderful event."  

AHC Executive Director Sheri A. Marino said in a thank you note sent to Root, “On behalf of the Autism Healthcare Collaborative and the families we serve, we would like to express our sincerest appreciation for your participation in our annual toy drive and holiday party which helped bring joy to more than 350 people who live every day with the challenges of autism. We were so proud to have nearly 80 student athletes from Watchung Hills Regional High School participate in our toy drive and volunteer to assist all of the children and young adults enjoy ice skating with friends, family, and even Santa too!”

With the help of the volunteers, the effort collected more than 400 toys to share with the families. Every child, including siblings, selected a toy to take home from Santa. 

“With the athlete's support, encouragement, and empathy, many children and young adults skated for their very first time,” Marino said. “This was only made possible because of the combined effort of everyone who volunteered their time and we are grateful to all!”

Marino is the mother of WHRHS Senior Jack Haiken. She said her son was a great help, assisting in the planning of the event, and the recruiting of students and coaches to participate. 

“He actually reached out to Athletic Director Root for me and made the connection,” she said. 

Marino also explained that AHC was founded by Warren resident and father, Dr. Paul Abend. He developed AHC to help families who are raising medically complex kids with autism.AHC was formerly known as the Autism Think Tank, and had offices on Mount Bethel Road in Warren.

“Now, our primary work is completed through medical videoconferencing,” Marino said.

“For the past 4 years, WHRHS Men’s Lacrosse, led by Jamie Lovejoy, has participated in collecting toys for the children and also participated at the event at Bridgewater Sports Arena helping our kids to ice skate with Santa! Every child, including siblings gets a toy from our sensory-friendly Santa. Year after year, more of your teams have joined in the effort. Last year, we had Women’s Lacrosse and Men’s Ice Hockey players also come out helping kids and adults to ice skate. The Baseball and Softball teams were represented, too. Women’s Basketball has also participated.”

Marino continued, “It is a beautiful event that positively impacts everyone involved. WHRHS student athletes have been amazing with our young children and adults with autism and they have showed compassion and enthusiasm throughout the event. As a result, more and more of our families want to participate, but that means we need more help each year, too. As a non-profit organization, part of our mission is to bring families affected by autism, together in ways they can enjoy the holidays as a family unit, rather than being divided as they often are.”

About Autism Healthcare Collaborative

The Autism Healthcare Collaborative (AHC) Vision is: To be an internationally recognized non-profit organization committed to facilitating the medical and psychosocial stabilization of individuals and families living with autism. 

The AHC Mission is: To provide a multidisciplinary team approach to the identification and treatment of the complicated medical comorbidities of autism by connecting medical experts to families and physicians around the world through medical videoconferencing. AHC offers innovative solutions for individuals with autism across the spectrum and throughout their lifetime through comprehensive case management, community outreach, advocacy, and education.  

For more information, visit www.autismhc.org.