Area police departments hope to have all toys and other presents donated to the 28th annual Bergen County PBA Toy Drive by this Sunday.
Three sons of a Lodi couple who both lost their jobs are among countless terminally ill, sick and needy area children who'll be surprised this Christmas season with presents collected during the drive.
The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood was also added this year to the list of recipients, which has long included Tomorrow's Children at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital in Hackensack, among other organizations.
The "Santa Response Team" this year is also "doing more individual families than ever," said Donald Nicoletti, a retired Closter police sergeant who helped launch the drive in 1988.
Police from throughout Bergen County -- and in Orangetown -- have been collecting unwrapped toys and other gifts that they will bring to the Closter firehouse on Wednesday, Dec. 21.
There, they and others will sort mountains of presents for delivery -- with help from reservists from the Teaneck Armory -- during the largest operation of its kind in the Northeast.
One cancer-stricken boy will get wireless headphones among his presents this year. Two other youngsters whose father is ill will get iPads.
And the list goes on.
"When we get a call of someone in need, it's like throwing coal into the engine. It sets everyone involved on fire," Nicoletti said. "These guys get so motivated."
DONATE: Checks can be made out to PBA Local 233 Toy Drive. MAIL TO: 295 Closter Dock Road. Closter NJ, 07624 ATTENTION: Vincent Sarubbi
Members of 47 local police departments and the Bergen County Sheriff's Office, along with the troops, will produce the deliveries for more than 20 different organizations and families.
"We call it 'The Organzation'," Nicoletti said. "These guys work magic."
Bi-lingual Closter Police Officer Luis Ruiz is back as Santa.
"It's like 'Miracle on 34th Street' when the parents say the kids speak only Spanish," Nicoletti said. "Luis slips right into it."
Familiar local vendors are in, as well: Daniel DeMiglio will bring his Callahan's hot dog truck; Johnny "Meatballs" DeCarlo will serve up his "Holy Trinity" creations made of veal, pork and beef, and Demarest Farms will serve their renowned doughnuts.
Other returning Toy Drive veterans include Sonja Kramer of Cutie Cupcakes and Frankie "Antipasto" of Buon Antipasto.
Come Dec. 21, volunteers will form assembly lines from the fire station to a U-Haul truck, a Paramus Motorcycle Unit trailer and other vehicles arranged in formation outside.
Barbie dolls, bicycles, video games and much more will then be trucked out.
"There are guys who come year after year for this, because of what it means to the kids," Fair Lawn Police Officer Michael O'Brien told Daily Voice.
The most emotionally-charged moments often come in the pediatric oncology ward in the Children's Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center.
“We go through a lot as police officers," Oradell Officer Rich Liguori told Daily Voice last year. "But coming here, seeing first-hand what these kids are going through, puts everything into perspective.
“What they’re fighting and what they’re going through doesn’t even compare to what we go through on a daily basis.”
Lynn Hoffman, executive director of Tomorrow Children’s Fund, said the PBA’s annual visit “changes the whole atmosphere of the hospital.”
"Anyone who's gone on the hospital run comes back affected," Nicoletti said. "The ages change, the genders change. But they all have the same thing in common: It might be their last Christmas."
For his part, Nicoletti prefers to keep the focus on the kids and the team. Still, he can't escape the admiration of his peers.
"His hard work and dedication to the drive has changed so many lives over the years and brightened the holidays for so many in need," Closter Police Sgt. Vincent Aiello told Daily Voice.
"Everybody's going through something -- that's what life is: peaks and valleys," Nicoletti said. "But when you get that call and you know that you can make a kid smile on Christmas -- take away that sadness even just a little bit for just a little awhile....
"There's nothing like it."
NOTE: Unwrapped toys and other gifts can be dropped off at participating agencies. Call your local police department.