Holiday party puts smiles on faces of more than 1,000 youngsters


There were smiles all around as children and their parents collected Christmas gifts – albeit a couple of weeks early – and enjoyed a holiday party at the Melvin H. Kreps Middle School in East Windsor on Dec. 8, thanks to RISE and the Junior League of Greater Princeton.

One young boy was all smiles when a volunteer handed him his gifts. His eyes widened and a smile broke out across his face as he carried away his two wrapped Christmas gifts, as if to say, “This is really for me?”

For Jennifer Chica and her two sons, ages 3 years and 18 months, this was the first time they attended the holiday party. She learned of it through her son’s preschool class.

“This is for the children. They enjoy it. They are having fun and that’s important. There are activities here and they like Santa Claus. It’s a good time for the children and that’s what it is all about,” said Chica, who lives in East Windsor.

A good time was had by all.

Children could have their faces painted by members of the Greater Hightstown Juniorettes, and they could also play games.

The Hightstown High School Rams football team was in charge of a knock-down game, in which children tossed cotton balls at Elmo and other Sesame Street characters who were sitting on top of an imitation fireplace mantle.

Besides Christmas presents, families could pick out pajamas, blankets and clothing that had been donated to RISE. Pajamas are a “hot commodity,” said Leslie Koppel, RISE’s executive director. The 300 sets of pajamas were quickly selected.

To go along with the jammies, Project Linus of Mercer County collected about 1,000 hand-made blankets to be given to children at the holiday party, Koppel said. The blankets are knitted or crocheted.

The Helene Cody Foundation, which is a nonprofit group, brought sneakers and shoes to be distributed to party-goers. Jenna Cody and her mother, Linda Morris, gave away about 120 pairs of sneakers in a very short time.

The holiday party has grown every year, Koppel said. Eight years ago, about 350 children signed up for it. This year, there were 1,037 children registered, a slight increase over the 1,003 potential gift recipients in 2017.

Every year, RISE puts out a call to the community to help and every year the community responds, Koppel said. Church groups, individuals and businesses may “adopt” a child in need, or hold gift drives to meet the needs of children who have registered for the party.

“When I see families loaded up and carrying gifts, pajamas, clothing and blankets, to me that is very satisfying. For a lot of families, those presents are the only ones that will be under the Christmas tree,” Koppel said.

Koppel was quick to note the holiday party would not be as successful without the help of the Junior League of Greater Princeton. Volunteers were on hand to help wherever they were needed.

The Junior League of Greater Princeton is happy to help, said the group’s president, Kathryn Tharney. The Junior League has been working with RISE on the holiday party for about 15 years, which fits in nicely with the league’s mission of promoting volunteerism, she said.

On a personal level, Tharney said, she finds it “inspiring” to be able to give back to the community and to participate in the holiday party. It is a rewarding feeling to be able to provide children with toys and to put a new coat on the back of a child whose coat may be too small, she said.

“We just want the children to have a blast, a morning full of celebration and to enjoy the spirit of the holiday,” Tharney said.