Short Hills residents Sharon Cohen and Kim Moore have been friends since their eldest children, Dan and Erin, both on the autism spectrum, shared an aide in kindergarten.
The pair is well-known throughout the Millburn/Short Hills area both for their advocacy on behalf of special needs children and their work with Caring Kids. Dan and Erin have both since graduated from high school, and Cohen and Moore’s youngest children are upperclassmen at Millburn High School.
“Soon, we’ll no longer be parents in the (school) community, so it doesn’t make sense for us to continue to run Caring Kids,” says Moore. They stepped down as the town-wide coordinators of the program this year after well over a decade at the helm.
Cohen interjects,“Except running the holiday gift drive, it’s the one thing we couldn’t give up. If only because no sane human would do it.”
The gift drive, having just completed its seventh year, began as a group project of the Caring Kids Peer Socialization Program at Millburn Middle School. “They decided their December event should be a Toys for Tots type thing,” says Cohen. “The parent who ran the program asked where we should donate the toys, and I said I know a place: New Jersey Regional Day School.”
New Jersey Regional Day School in Newark which opened in 1983, is a public school which serves severely handicapped children from ages 5 to 21. Cohen’s close friend, Anne Pereira, formerly her son Dan’s tutor, was a teacher and administrator at the school.
For the first two years of the drive, it was like a Toys for Tots holiday party. Participants would bring a toy to Cohen’s house to wrap, enjoy a chocolate fountain and make holiday cards. By the third year, the event had grown so large it moved to a public space. And in the fourth year, Cohen asked Pereira to get a wish list of the top three gifts from every child in the school so they could get something they wanted. Moore found families in town to agree to take a child and fulfill their complete wish list. “We continue to provide the holiday party because it’s a community event for our town,” said Cohen. “Every year Kim and I rent a U-Haul and take the gifts to the school, and they have someone dress up as Santa and deliver the gifts.”
“When you look at the lists from these kids you see one, maybe two presents that make sense for a kid their age,” says Moore. “But inevitably there will be something that makes no sense, and you realize, it’s for someone else. They’re trying to make sure there is Christmas for everyone. The generosity of spirit in these kids who often have nothing is astounding.”
The scope of the drive has grown each year as Cohen and Moore have become more aware of the situation of the families of the students. “We realized some kids didn’t have a coat, so now we ask for a list of kids without coats,” explains Cohen, “then we realized there’s food insecurity, many of the families struggle to put food on the table. So we ask if you can, provide ShopRite and Walmart gift cards because those are the stores that are nearby.”
“We collected $3,700 in gift cards for this year’s holiday drive which is fantastic,” says Moore, “but we’d love to see some sustainable system of giving to the school because once these cards are gone, we don’t get more until next year.”
Cohen says she gets calls all the time regarding families with no food asking if Caring Kids help.
“Caring Kids doesn’t have that kind of budget, so we end up personally running to ShopRite to buy a couple of hundred dollars in gift cards.”
The pair worries what will happen if there is a repeat of this past summer when Cohen was called while out of state. Fortunately, her husband was in town and able to purchase and deliver the gift cards. Moore explains a sustainable giving model would allow the school to purchase their own gift cards to have on hand.
Last year, the duo personally helped Pereira realize a dream for the school, creating a school logo. Each kid received a sweatshirt with the new logo printed on the front and back. Now this year’s gift drive is complete, Cohen is eager to get started on her next goal, helping the school have its first prom. “We have to raise $10,000,” states Cohen.
“It’s a typical kid thing. In as much as they are capable of understanding why not give them as much of the world as we possibly can? That’s what she does,” said Moore pointing to Cohen.
“That’s what we do. It’s a team effort,” said Cohen,“We live in a very affluent town. I have been very blessed that my husband’s job provides for us. But for a very small twist of fate we could have been in one of these families’ situation, how dare we not give back?”