The all-purpose room in Toms River Intermediate School North was the scene Saturday, December 15 of what appeared to be a large community Breakfast with Santa Claus for the students and families of Silver Bay and East Dover Elementary Schools.
There was laughter and smiles everywhere. Toys were stacked high filling the entire stage area and another long set of tables on the opposite side of the room decorated by a sea of green and white balloons. Santa Claus and his elves made the rounds handing out candy canes.
However, this was no ordinary event -- all of the families attending lost their homes and many of their possessions almost seven weeks ago during Hurricane Sandy. Stacey Pirrello and Linda Sciorilli, both of Toms River, acting on their own, planned the breakfast to help their neighbors, who now found themselves facing the holidays either staying in a rental or hotel, with family or friends or living back in an unfinished home.
"As soon as we heard, this was something we had to do for the kids," said Sciorilli.
Sciorilli and Pirrello worked with Silver Bay School principal Mike DeVita and East Dover School principal Linda Downing in distributing special invitations to the families. They asked for a wish list and every student got at least one item from that list, Sciorilli said.
Pirrello said the gifts were donated by her and Sciorilli's friends, neighbors and others in the community. In all, they doled out 500 gifts to the 140 children attending the breakfast. Another 100 gifts were dropped off Friday for impacted children at Washington Street School. The food and paper products were donated by local companies and volunteers from all over the township came to help.
"Everybody's happy," said Pirrello. "A lot of families have not seen each other, so this was a great way to get together and see their friends."
Principal DeVita said Silver Bay School had more than 100 families impacted by the storm and now parents are coming from places like Caldwell, Little Egg Harbor and every retirement community in Ocean County to bring their children to school every day.
"It's great to finally see smiles on their faces after everything they went through," said DeVita.
Principal Downing said East Dover is the school attended by children living in devastated Ortley Beach and other heavily damaged areas. She said the families just want to go home, put their Christmas trees up.
"Thank God for these people to do something like this," said Downing. "Your faith in humanity has really lifted with what's gone on here."
Silverton residents Waine and Caryn Heffelfinger said the breakfast was especially cheering for their son Thomas who lost all his toys when their one-story home was flooded.
"He lost everything," said Caryn Heffelfinger. "It's overwhelming the generosity. Our local community has helped us out a lot."
The Heffelfingers, who harrowingly escaped their home in the middle of the night during the storm as the water rose rapidly, are once again living in their home, with Waine doing the repairs himself almost every day since the hurricane.
Their neighbors, Mary and Ken Peirson and their twins Robert and Rebecca, first-grade twins at Silver Bay, lost the lower level of their home. Mary reiterated her family has been treated with overwhelming kindness by the community.
"(The breakfast) means a gathering of wonderful people and togetherness surrounded by love," said Mary Peirson. "My husband talked to the kids and we're going to be donating a lot of time (when this is over) to give back."
Tom and Diana Bykowski and their children, Timothy and Nathan are living in Manchester, shuttling their children back and forth to school. They said the roof blew off of their house during the storm, so they grabbed everything they could and drove to friends in Jackson. A neighbor later texted them that one wave had come, flooding their neighborhood.
"We are amazed at the reaction from people, from school and the workplace," said Tom Bykowski. "It's something we never expected."