ONLY ON CLIFFVIEW PILOT: “Mommy, it’s what I always wanted!” the 4-year-old cancer patient shrieked, holding her new Nintendo DS game to her chest, as Santa Claus (aka: Closter Police Officer Louie Ruiz) and his PBA colleagues from throughout Bergen County burst into a laughter not always heard in the halls of The Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital in Hackensack.
Some “S.R.T.” Toy Drive members, including founder Don Nicoletti, bottom left
“Seeing those kinds of reactions — that’s the best,” said 21-year-old Marc Krapels, a Demarest special officer on his first-ever tour of duty with the “S.R.T.”: Santa Response Team.
“THIS is the true meaning of Christmas,” Krapels said.
Hours earlier, nearly 100 officers from throughout the county — buoyed by dozens of National Guardsmen from the Teaneck Armory — gathered and sorted through thousands of donated toys and boxes at the Closter firehouse.
Then the cops loaded them into a trailer, several vans and a mini-bus, before a caravan wound its way to Hackensack University Medical Center.
“For me, it’s the best day of the year,” Closter Police Officer Vincent Aiello said.
What began modestly 20 years ago as the brainchild of Closter Patrolman Don Nicoletti has exploded into an amazing display of generosity, with no fewer than two dozen Bergen departments participating this year.
“It really makes the holidays feel right,” said Westwood Police Officer Jim Quaglino.
The PBA Toy Drive originally targeted impoverished areas, but the poor economy has created a greater need in the valleys, as well. And despite the failing economy, the group had one of its largest hauls ever.
Besides sorting through all the toys collected by PBA members and dropped off at various police headquarters, stores and schools, the crew had to open several sealed shipping boxes.
“People were buying things from QVC and addressing the labels to Closter headquarters,” a proud and grateful Nicoletti said.
The military officers collected presents for families of soldiers overseas. Toys also were delivered to the West Side Infant & Teen Center, New Hope in Westwood, the Northern New Jersey Cerebral Palsy Center and Bergen County Head Start.
Some families directly sponsored others, filling wish lists provided by police.
But some of the most touching moments occurred at the Children’s Hospital.
Photo above and at bottom by
Mahwah P.O. William J. Hunt
One little girl, her head swathed in bandages, was so excited that she kept kicking the covers of her bed. Another boy looked in amazement at his “Rescue Heroes” toy, showing it off to anyone who looked — and even to those who didn’t.
Near the end of the visit, a young boy bolted from his room and dashed down the hallway, his smiling mom trailing behind. He caught up to “Santa” just before he got onto the elevator.
So Ruiz gave him more toys than he could hold.
That was the thing: It wasn’t one or two gifts per kid. There were several. And the supply was so flush that the volunteers could select just the right toys for each age.
There were bright toys, toys that make noise, board games and electronics. LeapFrog products were a huge hit.
A hospital employee with a clipboard scouted each room first, determining the need. Then she reported back. Santa’s helpers instantly dug through carts loaded with presents to find a perfect fit.
At one point, she emerged from a room and warned “Santa” that the family inside spoke only Spanish. The crew laughed, knowing they had the right man for the job.
“It’s like ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ ” Nicoletti said, “only the family in this case isn’t Dutch.”
Siblings weren’t left out, either — they got plenty of presents, as well. Their parents got huge bags of M&Ms, donated to Nicoletti by a friend. Nurses, doctors and security guards also collected candy bags, along with hearty “Ho Ho Ho”s from Ruiz.
As the visit was ending,
gathered a group of officers for a photo in the special area dedicated to The New York Rangers, a major donor to the special hospital.
“This wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for every single man and woman who volunteered for their effort,” Nicoletti said before climbing into a mini-bus packed with the remaining officers for the rush-hour ride back to Closter. “Without any one of them, it isn’t this big.”
“Merry Christmas!” the officers shouted, as the door closed and the black bus headed off.
PARTICIPATING POLICE DEPARTMENTS
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