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Mayor Leonard Desiderio, on bicycle, is joined by some of his volunteer "elves" for the holiday toy and food drive. From left, his daughter, Carmela Desiderio, Sis Borden, Paul Baldini Jr., and Pattiann Ponichtera, the mayor's assistant and organizer of the drive.

By MADDY VITALE

What may seem like a kind, small gesture to some can make the difference in the lives of children who will have a holiday meal and gifts under the tree this year thanks to Mayor Leonard Desiderio’s 27th annual Holiday Toy and Food Drive.

On Friday afternoon, volunteers led by the mayor’s assistant, Pattiann Ponichtera, put the finishing touches on decorated bags filled with gifts, Christmas dinners and non-perishable items from cereal to crackers.

“This is our 27th year and each year it gets better and better,” Desiderio said as he glanced around the room at the abundance of gift bags. “This year, people were even more generous.”

Toys, including a bicycle wrapped in a bow, rounded out the items in a room in City Hall getting packed up for delivery.

“All of the fixings for a Christmas dinner, including a turkey and stuffing, are in the bags and there are foods to take the families through the holidays and lots of gifts,” Ponichtera explained. “There are also gift cards for kids, and Acme and ShopRite gift cards.”

Ribbons and bows atop gifts wrapped in reds, greens, silvers and blues added to the festive atmosphere.

Sis Borden, of Sea Isle City, wraps all of the gifts and has been doing so for years.

Borden is one of the local volunteers, collectively known as the “mayor’s elves.” She is, as Desiderio says, his “super elf.”

She didn’t know how many gifts she had wrapped since November. Only that there were a lot.

But Borden did know this: all of the gifts were picked after the children wrote a letter to Santa and slipped their wish lists in the mail slot at City Hall.

Bags containing food, gift cards, toys and games fill a room in City Hall.

This Christmas, a total of 14 families and 35 children throughout Sea Isle are benefiting from the toy and food drive.

The work began in November for the holiday food and toy drive. And like every year before, generous donations and volunteerism helped make it all possible.

Ponichtera noted that local charities, civic groups, the business community and Sea Isle residents all come together to make donations each year.

On Dec. 18, 1st Bank of Sea Isle City donated $5,000 to the toy and food drive.

“1st Bank is happy to be a major sponsor of the Mayor’s Toy and Food Drive, which helps feed and supply Christmas gifts to local families who have fallen on rough times,” 1st Bank President and CEO Larry Schmidt said in a press release. “This donation is part of 1st Bank’s commitment to the local community.”

“Each year, we receive donations – big and small – which help brighten the holidays of families in need,” Desiderio said. “My thanks go to 1st Bank of Sea Isle City and everyone who gave toys, non-perishable food items, gift cards or monetary donations to this year’s drive.”

Pattiann Ponichtera, Mayor Leonard Desiderio, 1st Bank of Sea Isle City Board Chairman Jack Gibson and other bank officials, during a check presentation. (Photo courtesy Sea Isle City)

In addition to 1st Bank of Sea Isle City, other major sponsors were the VFW Post 1963, CASA Payroll Services, Bella Roots, Acme and ShopRite, along with a host of others who helped make the day and deliveries possible.

After all the gifts were loaded into a van, the mayor and his volunteer elves were heading out to make the deliveries to local families just in time for Christmas.

Like Borden, many of the volunteers make the food drive their tradition as well.

The mayor’s daughter, Carmela Desiderio, who is 21, said she has always been a part of the food and toy drive.

“My mom was doing the holiday drive when she was pregnant with me,” Carmela said with a laugh. “So, I guess I have been doing it since before I was even born.”

Gift bags are loaded into a van for deliveries to families in need.
The volunteers join Mayor Leonard Desiderio for a group photo.