By Donald Wittkowski
Clad in his pajamas, Jose Fraga Jr. rushed to the front door Thursday when he saw three men standing outside his home unloading boxes and bags filled with gifts and food.
“I like to get toys,” the 3-year-old Jose exclaimed, suggesting that he already knew what was inside the wrapped presents that were being delivered.
Jose is among 39 children, from 18 needy families in Sea Isle City, who are benefiting this Christmas from Mayor Leonard Desiderio’s Holiday Toy and Food Drive, now in its 24th year.
Desiderio and local volunteers loaded up two big vans with hundreds of gifts and boxes of food and began making the rounds Thursday afternoon throughout town. They were greeted with smiles, hugs and expressions of gratitude during their deliveries.
“Lenny, thank you. I love you,” said Tara Good, while exchanging a kiss with the mayor.
Good, a single mother of daughters Ali, 12, and Cami, 10, explained that she has been sick with leukemia and wasn’t able to do much Christmas shopping.
“This helps us fantastically,” Good said of the toy drive. “Lenny really takes care of the people of Sea Isle.”
At the Fraga house, pint-sized Jose Jr. shouted “Hi” from the front door after Desiderio and his helpers began taking gifts and food out of the van.
Jose’s mother, Angela Fraga, said she would use the food to make a Christmas dinner for her family, including her husband, Jose Sr., and daughters Dayana, 9, and Britany, 6.
“Every year, they come here with presents from Mr. Desiderio,” Fraga said. “They bring us clothes, toys and all that. We are so happy.”
Sea Isle is known as a summer beach resort dotted with upscale oceanview and bayfront homes. However, there are pockets of needy families who struggle during the off-season, when the summer tourists are gone and work becomes scarcer, Desiderio said.
“There’s always someone in need,” he said.
The toy and food drive “ensures that everyone will be able to celebrate Christmas and have a gift under the tree,” Desiderio said.
Reflecting the generosity of the entire community, the holiday drive involves local charities, civic groups, the business sector and Sea Isle residents, city officials said. Desiderio noted that many of the people who donated are from working-class families in town.
“We’re very fortunate we have people who donate,” he said.
Pattiann Ponichtera, assistant to the mayor, organized the holiday drive, while local volunteer Sis Borden wrapped the gifts. Other volunteers collectively known as the “mayor’s elves” help to load and deliver the packages and food.
At City Hall, an entire room on the second floor was nearly filled with donated gifts and food. A girl’s purple bicycle, stuffed animals, balls, miniature trucks, crayon sets, action figures and hobby horses were among the toys stacked on tables or lining the floor.
“Sea Isle’s people come through,” Borden said of the donators. “They really give a lot every year. And what they give is very nice. It’s all top-notch stuff.”
Borden could only guess at the total number of gifts, estimating it was well in the hundreds. She started wrapping the packages in November.
In addition to all of the toys, there were 50 boxes of food. Ponichtera said each needy family would receive three boxes of nonperishable food.
“Every year, we tweak it to make it a little bit better,” Ponichtera said of the toy and food drive.