It turns out, Santa doesn’t always sport a big white beard and festive red suit.
Sometimes, he looks just like your next-door neighbor.
Such was the case last week in Mt. Laurel, when community members came together for the Rotary Club’s annual winter holiday food basket drive. The project is months in the making, and on Wednesday, Dec. 18, baskets and toys were delivered to 109 needy families throughout the township.
“The best part of the whole thing is the feeling you get when you’re done,” Angelo Butera said. “Knowing you’ve helped somebody, it makes you feel good.”
Butera is a Rotary Club board member. He was on hand to orchestrate last week’s deliveries, handing out maps and organizing which baskets were heading to which areas of the township.
“This is our real hometown project,” Butera said.
The first holiday basket drive was held for 25 local families in 1989. Each basket comes packed with a turkey, stuffing, gravy, string beans, peas, corn, cranberry sauce and desserts. The Mt. Laurel School District collected the canned goods; Rotary was in charge of the turkeys, stuffing and desserts.
“The students started collecting in October. Each school is assigned a good item,” Carol Riepen, administrative assistant to the superintendent of schools, said. “Our custodial staff picks it all up and brings it to the library, where administrative personnel from Mt. Laurel Schools helps to pack everything.”
Riepen said the need for the holiday baskets is a sign of the times.
“There’s needy families in every community,” she said. “We just want to help out wherever we can to make the holiday a little bit happier for those who are not as fortunate as others.”
Lenape High School 9–10 Principal Len Westman was helping with deliveries Wednesday with his college-aged son, David, and assistant principals Kevin Kelly and Bill Murray. Westman said he is a Rotary Club member alongside Lenape’s 11–12 principal, Tony Cattani, and they like to help out to further Lenape’s involvement in community service.
“We’re a strong community. We support one another,” Westman said. “We have families in need.”
In addition to the food component of the holiday baskets, the Rotary Club and members of Lenape High School’s Interact Club also donate toys for every child under the age of 18. This year, it was 282 gifts.
Interact Club member AJ Goldstein chose to gift a football to a 5-year-old child. Among his club, he said sports items were popular for young boys, and things such as dolls were often chosen for the girls.
The senior has been part of the Interact Club and the basket drive for four years. He helps organize the event on the club’s end and always shows up on delivery day.
“It makes me feel just amazing. Once it’s over, after all the chaos, you sit back and think, ‘Wow. Look what we just did,’” Goldstein said with a smile. “The feeling is incredible.”
The Mt. Laurel Fraternal Order of Police contributes to the drive every year. In addition to providing a staging area on delivery day, the Mt. Laurel Library also donates a book for each child.
But on Wednesday afternoon, it was not only members of these organizations stepping up to help with deliveries. Some volunteers, like Shirley Mikuletzky, are married to Rotary Club members. Since Mikuletzky’s husband, Carl, picked up and delivered the 109 turkeys Wednesday morning, she showed up in the afternoon to help with deliveries.
Gina Acerbo learned about the project Wednesday morning while working at the library. Her father owns Acerbo’s Auto Trim & Lettering in Mt. Laurel, and she borrowed his huge work van to help with deliveries in the afternoon.
Butera said the basket drive is a true group effort, and every year there are community members getting involved.
“Neighbors, past members… People hear about it and want to help,” Butera said. “They want to donate. It really becomes a community event.”