Christmas Tree Lighting Heralds Holiday Season

Santa and Mrs. Claus join elves, snowmen, toy soldiers, volunteers and many others for a group shot of those who made Toyland come alive during the weekend of Dec. 1-2 at the Jackson Senior Center. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

JACKSON – The holiday season officially arrived in the township with two long standing traditions returning on the first weekend of December.

For more than two decades, residents have enjoyed some holiday magic in the form of Toyland, which returned on Dec. 1-2 to the Melvin Cottrell Center for Senior Citizens and the Disabled located at 45 Don Conner Blvd.

The center was transformed into multiple holiday themed rooms featuring costumed characters. Around two thousand visitors toured Toyland during the two-day event which was the result of a cooperative effort by the Salvation Army, senior center staff and around 100 volunteers including students from Jackson Memorial High School and seniors.

Salvation Army Field Representative for the Central Region of NJ, Esther Valentin Leon, said “this is an amazing event that we work with the community to provide. It is a true community effort and involves the Rotary Club, high school students, the center’s staff and volunteers who help put up displays and operate the event.”

Kate Slisky, director of the Jackson Senior Center points to the train set carrying Lego superheros on one of the cars one of the new additions of this year. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

Senior Center Director Kate Slisky was enjoying her second Toyland experience during the weekend. “We had a few changes this year. Last year our back room was used as a changing room and a lunch area for our volunteers but that area has been remade into our Snowflake Gift Shop where visitors can shop for a variety of holiday items with prices 50 cents and up. It is so beautiful we are thinking of keeping it up year-round.”

Slisky said that the Salvation Army has been very supportive of the center and that they have been focusing on helping the homeless. “They provide the free Teddy Bears that the children receive. We also give the children a cookie and juice when they come through the door and visit our rooms.”

“Our senior volunteers have been working for months in knitting and crocheting hats, sweaters and outfits for the bears that can be purchased and the proceeds for them and bears that can be purchased is donated to the Salvation Army,” Recreation leader Kris Jackson said. “Everyone here is smiling.”

“This year there is more mingling and more time for the children and our senior volunteers to socialize. It really brings us together as a community,” Slisky said.

Slisky also commended Atlantic Coast Rehabilitation “who brought in Kristina, an artist, who created a new backboard and a mailbox area where our visitors write letters assisted by our student volunteers that are given to patients at the rehab for the holidays.”

This year’s train room offered a special surprise with tiny Lego superheroes that were riding on one of the two train sets laid out in a massive winter mountain display.

The event would not be possible without two “remarkable Department of Public Work staff Mark Herrick and Steven Clark better known as ‘Mark and Clark’,” Slisky said. “They help lay out the multiple rooms.”

Slisky also commended staff member Elaine Kwalski who assists with posing the children with the Kringles and helping out in the office.

Among the seniors who volunteer was Marie Held who was decked out in green as an elf. “I was in rehab last year and missed this last year but I’ve been helping out for about 30 years with this. I love it,” Held said.

The Snowflake Gift Shop provided holiday shopping for attendees of this year’s Toyland event. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

Around 50 Jackson Memorial High School students served as costumed tour guides for the event. They provided elves, snowmen, various Disney characters from the film “Frozen,” Rudolph the red nosed reindeer and this year some superheroes as well. Santa and Mrs. Claus of course had a room devoted to greeting children and adults within Toyland.

Jackson Memorial High School art teacher Matt Albert helped make sure Kris Kringle got to the center from the North Pole noting that he’d been involved with the project with students for 16 years but provided Santa Claus after being asked to fill in 14 years ago. “The mayor and I provide a letter of recognition to each student for their record but they all really love to volunteer for this.”

Jackson Rotary Club Vice President Bill Hybbeneth said the Rotary Club loves to support the program and “we have Interact Clubs at both Jackson high schools that are sponsored by the Rotary. The kids here today are doing the face painting and tattooing booths.”

The township’s official Christmas Tree Lighting was lit with ceremony, holiday wishes and song on Dec. 1 on the grounds of the municipal complex on Don Conner Boulevard. Parents, children, township officials enjoyed a musical program within the township hall before adjourning outside to light the tree. Santa stopped by shortly afterward, making the event complete.