Members give it all to make the PBA Toy Drive for children in foster care bigger and better than ever

By Esther Gonzales 

Photos by Ed Carattini Jr.

Pines Manor in Edison bustled with holiday cheer on Dec. 6 during the annual NJSPBA Toy Drive for Embrella, an organization that advocates for children in the foster care system.

Long before 9 a.m., when members arrived carrying loads of presents, trailers from PBA Locals and police vehicles lined the parking lot, each one filled to the brim with toys of every kind. PBA members bustled back and forth with boxes, packages and bags of toys gathered from their Locals and residents in their communities.

The thousands of toys accumulated into a towering mountain in the corner of a Pines Manor meeting room. PBA Sports and Special Events Committee Chair Vito Spadea, the Somerville Local 147 State Delegate, organized the toy drive with his helper, Dunellen Local 146 State Delegate Joe Dudley. Wearing their omnipresent Santa hats, they noted that over the past five years, every toy drive seems to grow even bigger and better than the one before. And this year was no exception, as the monstrous operation to lead a convoy of trailers to Embrella in Princeton was underway.

“It’s massive,” NJSPBA President Pat Colligan declared. “I was watching bicycles go by and giant toys go by. Members are really stepping up. And we don’t get to see the results, because it’s foster and adoptive children. But I know we have to be covering every foster kid in the state.”

Carrying boxes of Legos, remote control cars and small dollhouses, East Rutherford Local 275 State Delegate Mike Podeia entered Pines Manor. Although this was the Local’s seventh year donating to the PBA Toy Drive, he said he still felt blown away by members’ support. And he added how incredibly fulfilling it felt to know they were helping children in need, especially during the holidays.

“I think it’s a great showing of what we’re capable of doing when the need is there,” Podeia remarked. “Every year, this room has just gotten smaller and smaller with being able to walk in here. It’s absolutely insane with the amount of gifts and participation. Once the president puts it out, everyone has no problem just filling this room, and it’s actually overwhelming.”

Members’ dedication to the cause indeed knew no bounds as they hosted their own toy drives and holiday events in November and early December. The famed Dunellen Local 146 movie night encouraged a new toy as the price of admission and inspired Hillsborough Township Local 205 to host a movie night of its own.

Several sponsors took up the cause as well, including Immaculata High School in Somerville, which donated 15 large bags filled with toys, and Wildfire Technology, which purchased laptops and other tech gifts.

Members also displayed their unwavering support this year with a new initiative of purchasing PBA Toy Drive challenge coins. Immediately after the challenge coins were announced at the October PBA state meeting, they sold out. With the proceeds, Dudley, Spadea and PBA Executive Board members Brian Brownlie and John Granahan ventured out on a never-ending shopping spree to find presents specifically for the older foster children Embrella serves.

Dudley described it as a scene out of the movie “Brewster’s Millions.” Every time Dudley thought they had reached their limit on the shopping, there was still money to spend from what they had raised selling the challenge coins. By the end of their shopping trip, there were enough items to fill two PBA trailers.

“It’s not just the support that we get from our own guys,” Dudley explained. “It’s the support that all of our people get from their members, from their communities, from their business partners, from everybody, because they understand how good of a cause it is. They understand where the toys are going, and they understand how much it’s needed. We could not be happier with the way that this is growing.”

Surrounded by members pushing carts, carrying boxes, loading toys into trailers and stopping for a brief coffee break, Michaela Murray, director of development at Embrella, took in the scene. This is what puts her in the Christmas spirit every year, she said. And members may never truly realize just how significant and powerful their impact will be.

“The number of toys, the number of children impacted, the number of kids who are going to wake up on Christmas morning with a smile and some joy,” commented Murray as she shook her head in disbelief at the sight. “And we’re talking about children who are in really difficult circumstances, who have had to be removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. And the PBA is able to bring them a normal Christmas morning like other kids have. It’s very special.”

Soon, the last toy was loaded, and members prepared to head to Princeton. The convoy of trailers from such Locals as Bridgewater, East Brunswick, Hillsborough, Mercer County Conference and Hunterdon County, as well as the State PBA, was on its way, escorted by motors units and patrol vehicles from Berkeley Heights, East Brunswick, Linden, Elizabeth, Edison and Hillsborough. The generous support of PBA members enabled many of the 3,200 children in foster care in New Jersey to receive a gift this holiday season through Embrella.

For most of them, Murray expressed, that impact is priceless.

Like for one 8-year-old girl, who received a brand-new bicycle from the 2021 PBA Toy Drive. During the first days of spring, when she finally had the chance to ride it, her mother took a video and sent it to Murray.

“She was flying down the sidewalk with the hugest grin on her face and just ear-to-ear smiling,” Murray added. “Those are those special moments that I wish I could share. But I can tell you, the joy on that child’s face, the excitement that she felt, only happens because of the efforts of the PBA for Embrella every year.”