WEST CALDWELL, NJ - The West Caldwell based charity Vero Amici disbursed more than $20,000 in donations to area aid organizations at a special ceremony held at the West Essex First Aid Squad on Thursday.

Vero Amici President Joe Garamella emphasized the communal aspect of the donations, noting that most of the money was raised by West Essex small businesses and private residents. The organization accepts donations, but the main source of the funds is the popular Casino Night and Tricky Tray fundraiser held every June.

The organizations receiving donations included:

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  • The Bridge, a nonprofit youth and family services organization ($2500).
  • Caldwell-West Caldwell Recreation, special needs department ($2500).
  • Mental Health Association of Essex County ($5000).
  • Local Assistance Board of of West Caldwell ($5000 plus the cost of Thanksgiving turkeys).
  • Nana’s Gifts a group run through St. Rocco’s shelter in Newark ($2500).
  • West Essex First Aid Squad ($2500).
  • The Caldwell and West Caldwell Fire Departments ($500, respectively).

Garamella served as the master of ceremonies for the event, sharing anecdotes from Vero Amici’s history and introducing representatives from each organization. The representatives were invited to speak and pose for photos with a novelty check. In addition to explaining where the money would go, each representative had nothing but effusive praise for Vero Amici and the generosity of the area community.

Inya Chehade from The Bridge spoke about using the funds to expand the organization’s social services in the area.

“We are honored to be a part of this community,” she said.

“I am truly humbled to be here with this community and with these fine organizations,” Maria Burak of the West Caldwell Local Assistance Board said, in an echo of Chehade’s comments.

The Local Assistance Board runs a food pantry and assists residents experiencing financial difficulties. Burak cited residents who have trouble paying rent and are facing eviction as beneficiaries of Vero Amici’s generosity. In addition to the money, Vero Amici will also buy Thanksgiving turkeys for area residents who cannot afford the traditional holiday staple.

“We often think of hunger being a strictly inner-city problem,” Garamella said. “But there are many families, our neighbors, in this area who experience hunger or can’t afford a Thanksgiving meal.’

Chiefs Gary Garamella and Jim Alvine of the Caldwell and West Caldwell Fire Departments emphasized the financial boone that community donations provide for volunteer organizations.

“In addition to the calls we go out on, the guys spend hundreds of hours every year training,” Alvine said. “I grew up around here. I’ve played softball with some of the guys [in Vero Amici]. It’s great to see local guys helping out.”

West Essex First Aid Squad Captain David Black described how his squad had benefited from community outreach during the recent Ebola scare. He noted that Ebola survival packs and yellow jackets had been a gift from Vero Amici.

In presenting the check to the Caldwell-West Caldwell Recreation special needs program, Joe Garamella discussed some of the activities that children in the program would be able to participate in.

“We take the kids to see plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse and the high school,” he said. Vero Amici has also been involved with the recreation department’s charity home run derby.

Bob Davison of the Mental Health Association of Essex County said that the money would be used for that organization’s children center. Children and families with limited resources will be given a full Christmas experience, including a tree, gifts and a turkey or ham meal.

“A lot of these children have been through unspeakable traumas,” Davison said. “Thanks to the work of the guys in Vero Amici, those children will have a Santa Claus this year.”

Vero Amici was founded in 2005 by a group of West Caldwell residents and friends who were looking to make a significant impact locally.

“Many of us were part of various other charitable organizations at the time,” founder and former president Vinnie Christopher said. “We got tired of the red tape and the way certain things were done and thought ‘why not just do [charity work] ourselves?’”

After consulting with the Internal Revenue Service and registering as a 501(c)(3) organization, Vero Amici was born. The focus was to find an effective way to help area residents who were in need and foster greater giving relationships in the Caldwells and the general West Essex community. Literally translated, Vero Amici is Italian for “True Friends,” and the friendly, intimate personal relationships the organization has cultivated are still its bedrock.

“The bulk of the money comes from local small businesses, the mom-and-pop stores,” Christopher said. “We’ve gone into local franchises of the big corporations; we’ve been laughed at, shooed out the door, jerked around.”

Christopher noted that given the austere economic climate, it has been difficult for some small businesses to give. He said that Vero Amici even considered taking a year off, giving a respite to small businesses that have consistently supported the organization for nine years.

“The mom-and-pop stores are always being asked to give, whether it’s by us, other organizations, the schools - there’s always a Tricky Tray around the corner. But each year they step up. I’ll walk into a store on Bloomfield Ave. and they’ll take out the checkbook and ask ‘how much do you need?’”

Garamella echoed Christopher’s sentiments.

“I’ve got to wonder - where are the big corporations, the ones that have a presence in this area?” Garamella asked. “I’m not trying to badmouth anyone. But think of the good we’ve done relying almost solely on small businesses and how much we could do if the big corporations participated.”

He noted that the TD Bank branch in West Caldwell has been a consistent supporter of the organization and that the Wells Fargo branch in Caldwell had recently sent Vero Amici a check.

“It’s a start.”

Garamella capped the awards portion of the evening by issuing a challenge to all in attendance: to spread the word, to tell family and friends and above all, to reach out and give help to one’s neighbors.

“It doesn’t have to be through us, give just to give. The Local Assistance Board could always use help. It’s not about us.”

“Vinnie once said it best - ‘we’re just ordinary guys trying to do extraordinary things,’” Garamella said.