JACKSON – For more than 20 years, township residents have enjoyed some Christmas magic in the form of a winter wonderland called Toyland, which returned on Dec. 2-3 to the Melvin Cottrell Center for Senior Citizens and the Disabled located on Donner Boulevard.
The event drew around 3,000 visitors to the facility and was the result of a cooperative effort by the Salvation Army, senior center staff and around 100 volunteers including seniors and students from Jackson Memorial High School.
Among the many families lined up in front of the senior center to enter the facility for a chance to tour the holiday decorated rooms of the center were the Bettina, Savannah and Jim Morell.
“This is our first year to do this and after we saw notice of it we thought it was something fun to do,” Bettina said. The Morells got to know others in line during the morning.
“We saw this online and there is a wonderful set-up of holiday rooms and you can also sit down and the children can enjoy cookies and juice and each child receives a free Teddy Bear provided by the Salvation Army,” said Erika Price, another resident.
Salvation Army Field Representative for the Central Region of NJ Esther Valentin Leon greeted entrants at the door joined by family members Arturo Leon Jeanelise J.J. Valentin, Josiah D.J. Valentin and Jaslene D.J. Valentin.
“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,” Esther Valentin Leon said.
This marked Kate Slisky’s first Toyland experience as director of the senior center.
“I joined as new director back in April and it has continued to be a wonderful experience. I came in as the new kid on the block and was warmly welcomed and supported,” she said. “We expect to get 3,000 visitors over the two days and provide 1,200 bears donated by the Salvation Army. 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.”
About 50 Jackson Memorial High School students served as costumed tour guides ranging from elves, snowmen, characters from the Disney movie Frozen, Rudolph the red nosed reindeer and many other characters. Even Kris Kringle and Mrs. Claus made an appearance.
“It takes two weeks to prepare for this. We shut down the center but continue to provide rides for seniors for shopping and our public works department also helps us assemble the displays,” Slisky said.
Senior volunteer Jean Orenstein said she’s been involved in the festive project for several years.
“My grandchildren now come here,” she said. “I’ve lived in the township since 1987 and this center provides seniors with vital services. What we receive here for free is wonderful and we meet many friends and it is all very family oriented.”
Slisky and Orenstein added that the center has an upcoming project of providing a new room for a lunch room and craft area. That new facility will also enhance next year’s Toyland event allowing for a special area for items that can be used for a larger area for sale items for the Salvation Army.
“We’re young at heart but old of body and this is a wonderful facility,” Orenstein added.
“They were busy here working on things every day,” said Christine Jackson, the recreation leader at the center who coordinated the senior volunteers and their projects.
While Santa and Mrs. Claus were busy meeting children in one room, other rooms included volunteer Craig Brownfield dressed as a train engineer running a variety of miniature train sets.
Slisky said that the letters to Santa project involves Atlantic Coast of Lakewood and are shared with their patients.
“We keep a log of how many visitors we receive and we hope to expand the program next year,” Slisky added.