Class of 2020 showered with gifts

Businesses and community members have rallied to the tune of more than $170,000 in gifts for Washington Township High School’s senior class.

Martino Cartier and faculty members from Washington Township High School gather to take stock of the latest bounty they acquired for the Class of 2020. The group has rallied to raise more than $170,000 in food, gift cards, and other presents for the soon-to-be graduating class, who are missing out on prom, a senior trip, and other senior traditions. (Photo provided)

Along with prom, spring sports, graduation and a senior trip, the 20th annual Senior Service Day was among the coronavirus pandemic casualties in the Washington Township High School curriculum.

Each spring since 2001, seniors have spent a day helping their community, whether it was cleaning up litter in a park, reading to elementary school students, or volunteering their time at one of the township’s senior centers. The school and its students have made serving the township a priority.

In a role reversal, the community is giving back to the Washington Township Class of 2020 this spring.

What began as a simple phone call from superintendent Joseph Bollendorf to salon owner Martino Cartier, who also runs the charity Wigs & Wishes, exploded into a gift giving celebration of Minutemen and Minutemaid seniors. 

Cartier, buoyed by a challenge from multiple-McDonalds franchise owner John Durante, organized local businesses to come together and deliver the Class of 2020 a gift. Less than a week after the phone call, Martino Cartier Salon, McDonalds, Carmen’s Deli, Pat’s Select, Liscio’s Barkey, Angelo’s Pizza, Rita’s Water Ice, Chick-Fil-A and Tony Soprano’s Pizza were among the area businesses that pledged to deliver food or gifts to the soon-to-be graduates, at an estimated total value of $170,000.

“We had a conversation and, within hours, it literally took off,” Bollendorf said. “Within two days the sponsor list grew exponentially. It was out of control.”

The initial phone call was made by Bollendorf to Cartier because of Cartier’s Wigs & Wishes charity, which provides free wigs to women and children undergoing chemotherapy and grants wishes to children battling cancer. Bollendorf told Cartier that there were six members of the Class of 2020 who either had recently lost a parent to cancer or had one currently battling the disease. 

Cartier immediately rubber-stamped six college scholarships through Wigs & Wishes, but he had a question of his own for Bollendorf.

“How many kids total are graduating?” he asked.

“Around 550,” Bollendorf said.

After getting over the initial shock of the number — Washington Township is easily one of the biggest high schools in South Jersey — Cartier called Durante.

“How much would you charge me for 550 value meals?” Cartier asked.

After being clued in, Durante pledged that he would donate that number in family meals if Cartier got other local business owners involved. Within 24 hours, Rita’s Water Ice agreed to whip up 550 free water ices, Angelo’s Pizza was ready to make 550 cheesesteaks (with Liscio’s Bakery, which is also making graduation cakes for each senior, supplying the bread), Carmen’s Deli was carving 550 hoagies, Tony Soprano’s Pizza was on board with delivering 550 pies, and on and on.

The Class of 2020 may not get a prom, but they certainly won’t be going hungry this spring.

“It’s very sad all the lives that have been lost (in the pandemic). It’s horrible,” said Cartier, who dedicated himself to a life of helping others after a challenging childhood that involved a stay in an orphanage and abusive father. 

“But out of the ashes shall rise something great,” he continued, “and that’s these people, who have businesses that are not making money, their businesses are closed, they are going above and beyond to make the future Americans at Washington Township High School feel like they have value, and purpose, promise and potential. They’ve done an incredible job.”

Washington Township High School principal Jonathan Strout and Wags & Wishes founder Martino Cartier organize gift bags to be handed out to the Class of 2020. (Photo provided)

In addition to a bounty of food, the seniors will also have gift bags, which include gift certificates and hair products, among other things, hand delivered to their homes. Several parents who had children honored by Wigs & Wishes volunteered to help organize and deliver the bags, but school officials politely declined the offer: Washington Township High School principal Jonathan Strout plans to make 30-plus trips per day during the month of May to see his seniors off properly.

“The superintendent and the principal? Oh my god. Those two, they need capes, like Superman,” Cartier said. “I wish I could be a fraction of what they are. They’re so dedicated. Mr. Strout wants to spend that moment with every single child. That speaks volumes and shows how dedicated they are. It literally took an army (to do all of this) and everyone deserves a medal of honor in that army.”

Perhaps the biggest win that will come out of the Great Washington Township Gift Giving Spring Event of 2020 will be the effect it has on the impressionable kids on the receiving end of the generosity. By seeing the good coming out of their own community, they’ll remember how they were treated during a trying spring and, perhaps, they will look to pay goodwill forward during their own adult lives, too.

“I’m very proud to have lived here for as long as I have and to have raised my children here,” said Bollendorf, who has worked in the school district for 37 years, including as the high school principal before taking the superintendent position five years ago.

Bollendorf said that in addition to this current effort, many residents have taken part in an “Adopt a Senior” program, too. 

“There’s a sense of community pride here in Washington Township,” Bollendorf said. “In this community it’s a major focal point of who we are and what we’re all about. All of our community members, complete strangers, have adopted a senior and gone to that child’s house and brought gifts. The kids have posted on social media and the joy on their face, at being acknowledged and having their spirit lifted by a complete stranger, it’s unprecedented. It’s unbelievable. 

“But it’s happening here in Washington Township. I know it’s happening in other communities across the United States, but it’s happening big time here.”

Here is the latest update for the Washington Township high school graduating class of 2020

Posted by Martino Cartier on Thursday, 7 May 2020