As a little girl made her way inside Old Bridge’s Lombardi Field for the high school football team’s season-opener against South Brunswick, she opened her mouth to catch the white flakes that gently cascaded from a snow-making machine positioned near the stadium’s entrance.
Once inside the venue, which was festooned with holiday decorations, the wide-eyed girl turned the corner to find a live reindeer and his handler, “Yukon Cornelius,” which caused her to wonder aloud with amazement why season’s greetings were taking place out of season.
The child gazed with delight at the spectacle that unfolded before her eyes on a gorgeous late summer evening as Old Bridge transformed Lombardi Field into a winter wonderland for a “Holiday Knight” Toy Drive benefitting pediatric patients and others in need throughout the greater Middlesex County area.
Oversized candy canes lined the walkway to the concessions stand. Super-sized stockings hung from the top of the sliver bleachers. Red ribbons and green garland adorned the handrails. Christmas trees and wreaths were strategically placed elsewhere throughout the venue. A 15-foot toll Frosty the Snowman, perched outside the stadium gate next to a huge box truck covered with alternating rows of red and green paper that was used to store the donated toys, was visible from Ticetown Road.
The high school marching band played a medley of holiday songs outside the stadium entrance as spectators, including some students dressed as Grinches and Santa Clauses, followed the same path the little girl took inside the stadium. The entire Old Bridge student section was eventually clad in purple and white Santa hats bearing the school’s logo. Their presence was felt throughout the home bleachers, which were filled to capacity, forcing an overflow crowd to congregate in an area behind the scoreboard.
In one of the most powerful scenes of the evening, nearly two dozen firefighters from the South Old Bridge Fire Company formed a human chain, passing countless presents from a florescent yellow fire truck parked on Wisdom Way to volunteers perched inside the red and green box truck.
As the home team took the field – running through a huge purple and white sign bearing the words “Old Bridge Holiday Knight Proud and Strong” – the donated toys from spectators that would eventually amount to thousands continued to pile up.
Players and cheerleaders from South Brunswick and Old Bridge will join representatives of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation, which partnered with Old Bridge High School to host the toy drive, to deliver the donated toys on Wednesday to Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s University Hospital.
The donations will be available for distribution at the hospitals, not only during the holiday season, but throughout the year, to meet the needs of pediatric patients, all of whom can benefit at any time from a diversion to help cope with the stress and pain that can accompany treatments, medical procedures and extended admissions.
“Saint Peter’s and our pediatric families are grateful for the support of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation and Old Bridge High School,” said Phil Hartman, hospital spokesman. “We serve thousands of children in need of serious medical care whose lives will be immeasurably brightened by the caring and support of the foundation and the Old Bridge school community.”
Parents of hospitalized children, some of whom are overwhelmed with medical bills and other related costs, may not be able to afford presents or are so consumed with caring for their ill child that shopping, even online, is not a possibility or a priority.
“Holiday Knight,” which was designed to help alleviate those issues, came to fruition because Old Bridge head football coach Anthony Lanzafama wanted his program to honor Marisa, a 13-year-old Middlesex County resident who died in January, and to assist the foundation established in her name.
The Marisa Tufaro Foundation helps children in need throughout the greater Middlesex County area. The foundation assists children in medical crisis and their families, provides scholarship opportunities and makes community service an integral part of its mission.
Volunteers from the foundation and Old Bridge High School gathered outside Lombardi Field on Saturday morning to organize the thousands of toys with the hope of easing the workload of the child life specialists at the hospitals who will distribute them.
The toys were categorized and placed in approximately 100 oversized moving boxes, which were donated in memory and honor of Kim J. Latkovich, a retired Woodbridge police officer who died on Sept. 2.
Marisa Tufaro was diagnosed in utero with a cardiac defect at Saint Peter’s University Hospital. Dr. Joseph Gaffney, chief of pediatric cardiology at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, under whose auspices Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital falls, cared for Marisa throughout her entire life. As a result, the two hospitals to which the toys will be donated have special meaning for Marisa’s parents, Greg and Cyndi, who established the foundation to honor Marisa and keep alive her spirit.
The event took place during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and the official “Holiday Knight” program distributed to spectators featured a full-page honoring Tommy DiPietro, an Old Bridge elementary school student who is winning a battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
Despite undergoing six open-heart surgeries, being hospitalized for more than two years and keeping hundreds of doctor’s appointments, Marisa lived a vibrant life that inspired. A heart transplant, which was supposed to extend Marisa’s life, tragically cut it short after a post-operative complication developed into a rare form of Stage IV cancer. After radiation and chemotherapy treatments failed to thwart the relentless onslaught of an aggressive disease that riddled her brain and body, Marisa succumbed to her illness in January following a valiant battle.
Diagnosed with Stage IV cancer last December, Marisa was weaned from a ventilator days before Christmas. With high-dose steroids alleviating the swelling in her brain, Marisa miraculously regained her cognitive function and fine motor skills in time to celebrate the holiday with her parents, who could not have received a greater gift. Through the generosity of strangers, Marisa was able to unwrap many wonderful donated presents and experience one final Christmas with her parents while being hospitalized in a pediatric cardiac intensive care unit.
Marisa would have absolutely adored everything about “Holiday Knight” – from the live reindeer to the snow-making machine – but most importantly she would have loved the idea of giving toys to pediatric patients.
On a spectacular September evening, all who entered Lombardi Field, young and old, were filled with the same wonderment as the wide-eyed girl who tried to catch fake snowflakes in her open mouth.