School No. 4 social worker Jennifer D’Alessio and Board of Education member Anthony Wohlrab sorting gifts for the second annual Board of Education Toy Drive, which distributed about 1,400 gifts to needy families around Linden. 

organizers and volunteers

Organizers and volunteers sorting gifts for distribution at the Academy of Excellence. From left are Linden High School social worker Shamona Patterson, School No. 4 social worker Jennifer D’Alessio, Supervisor of Student Services Annabell Louis, and Board of Education member Anthony Wohlrab.

 By Gary Miller

This week, families all around Linden are having a holiday season that is a little bright because of the generosity and hard work of the Linden Public Schools community.

The second annual Linden Board of Education Toy Drive distributed about 1,400 toys and other gifts to families in need – that’s about double what the project did in its first year.

“We want to thank everybody for their generosity,” said Board of Education member Anthony Wohlrab, who spearheaded the effort. “It was amazing how much support we had.”

The movement started with the individual schools identifying the families that could use help around the holidays.

“The school-based social workers did a lot of the referrals,” said Annabell Louis, supervisor of student services, who was instrumental in coordinating the families that needed help with the many gifts and funds that were donated. “Then they reached out to the families to see if they’d be interested in participating.”

Each school set up a giving tree, where families that wanted to donate would select a tag with a specific gift that was requested by a student.

Wohlrab and Louis said they were particularly touched by the kinds of gifts the children asked for.

“Last year, when we asked one boy what he wanted, he said he wanted a toothbrush for Christmas,” Wohlrab said. “I don’t know how to describe how sad that was for me. Something as simple as a toothbrush that we use every day, something we take for granted, some people don’t even have that. Another kid said he wanted a toaster so his family could eat hot food. That just broke my heart.”

Louis told of the selflessness she encountered from students.

“In sorting through the wish list, we had some kids who only asked for gifts for their parents,” she said. “We had a middle school student who asked for a gift for his mom and his older sister and didn’t want anything for himself. I reached out to the counselor at the school and asked her to call him down and see if he wanted anything. Eventually he did say he wanted a coat. So we made sure he got the coat and the gifts for his mom and his sister that he requested.”

The giving trees were just the beginning of the generosity.

On Dec. 4, the community came together for a night of caroling to help raise money to buy more gifts. Three buses donated by Villani Bus Co. carted Santa Claus and troupes of carolers around the city to sing for families that had signed up ahead of time. News crews from ABC Channel 7 and News 12 New Jersey accompanied the buses to spread the word about the fun and fruitful night.

“To see how much support we got from the community was overwhelming,” said Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi, who was one of the carolers. “The way the city came together with the schools – from the social workers, to the churches, to all the carolers, to all the families who donated – shows that Linden is a true family that will come together to help its  own.”

santa claus with carolers, including Superintendent Danny Robertozzi

Santa Claus, aka School No. 5 teacher Kayla Kluse, with Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi, School No. 5 teacher Vanessa Kennaway, School No. 5 Principal Laura Scamardella, and Board of Education member Tracey Anne Birch during the Caroling for a Cause event on Dec. 4.

The caroling raised almost $1,000. In total, the drive raised $1,300 in cash donations.

Wohlrab, Louis and Linden High School Vice Principal Lizzie Ortiz spent the day on Sunday, Dec. 17, using the donated money to shop for gift requests that were not filled through the giving trees, as well as gift cards to make sure each family’s holiday wish came true.

The following day, the drive’s organizers and volunteers from around the district gathered at the Academy of Excellence, in the former St. Elizabeth’s School, to sort, bag, and distribute the gifts to the families. It was a hive of activity that included a wrapping station for recipients “so families can take ownership of giving their children gifts for the holidays,” Louis said.

The drive was done in conjunction with the Linden Department of Social Services, which coordinated with St. Elizabeth Church, Emmanuel Tabernacle Assembly, and the Reformed Church of Linden to provide well over 200 gifts to the effort.

“By coordinating with the city, we were able to reach even more families,” Louis said.

Valuable support was provided by CEC Research in Cranford; Central Park in Roselle; and Wells Fargo Bank branches on Wood Avenue and St. Georges Avenue in Linden.

It was a total community effort in which everyone came together to help people right in their hometown.

“Next year we’ll go even further,” Wohlrab said.

toys and gifts

Linden High School Vice Principal Lizzie Ortiz sorting gifts for the Board of Education Toy Drive.