This piece was produced in partnership with NJTV News.
By Lauren Wanko
Santa Claus came early this year for about 100 kids.
“It’s fair to say that without this event many of them may not have gotten gifts at all,” said Jersey Shore Rescue Mission Director Phillip Richards.
The Monmouth County Police Chiefs Association and Chaplain Pastor Terrance Porter of the Red Bank-based Pilgrim Baptist Church sponsored a Christmas party at the Jersey Shore Rescue Mission in Asbury Park. Nearly a dozen police chiefs served local residents a hot meal while guests enjoyed the holiday festivities, and a fire truck, too.
“It’s also a great time to show the community that we really do care about them, even though we answer all the calls and take care of people. But it’s a good time to show kids we care about them and give back to them,” said Brielle Police Chief Michael Palmer. “It lets the kids know police officers are out there for them and that they can always come to us.”
“Something like this gives you a good feeling this time of year to connect with the community and also to give back,” said John Powers, chief of the Aberdeen Township Police Department.
The Monmouth County Police Chiefs Association and its chaplain launched the Wishing Upon a Star Initiative three years ago. Chiefs bring two gifts — one for a boy and another for a girl — to their yearly installation dinner. Those toys are eventually donated to organizations who distribute them. This year marks their very first Christmas party.
“For me, since my kids are older, it’s kind of fun to go out and shop for kids, for younger children,” said Powers.
At the event, there are nearly 100 wrapped gifts. A few days before the party, the parents who plan to attend come by and picked out the gifts for their children so they know they’ll be happy with what they open.
Mom Susan Aquino is grateful her kids will have new Christmas toys.
“All my gifts, I get from donations,” she said. “I’m disabled so it means a lot. It means a lot.”
Most of the party guests live in the area. Some are residents of the Jersey Shore Rescue Mission, which offers a long-term addiction recovery program along with an emergency shelter. Christopher Byrne graduated from the program and he’s now an intern there. He was thrilled his daughters were at the party.
“The ability to just be present with them and just enjoy them and hang out and have a good time is something I wasn’t sure at one point in my life I would be able to do experience,” Byrne said.
The Pilgrim Baptist Church members volunteered their time and prepared the dinner at no cost to their guests.
“We can all serve the kids and just have a good time by framing this as a season of hope and love which is the Advent season,” said Pilgrim Baptist Church Pastor Terrence Porter.
The pastor and chiefs hope to coordinate another community event this summer — a fishing trip. For now, they hope this party brightens the holiday season.