Center Moriches, N.Y. - For the third consecutive year, the St. Joseph's College (SJC) women's lacrosse team spent close to a month preparing for a very special evening on December 11 as part of a program serving underprivileged children on Long Island. That program is affectionately known as "Christmas Magic" and has become an annual team bonding experience that creates an aura of magic around the team for the month of December.
"Christmas Magic" t-shirts and sweatshirts have been made up for the team's annual party where Santa comes to make an appearance and a group of deserving youngsters are treated to a very special evening through the generosity of a the secret elves who assist Mr. Claus.
Just before Thanksgiving, the team gathers to read and select letters to Santa that these children have written. Each SJC student-athlete selects one (or two) specific children, then purchases several of the gifts that they were asking for, making some of their list wishes come true. Every child on the list ends up with their personal bag of gifts.
Mr. Charlie Russo has been running Christmas Magic for over twenty-five years. Christmas Magic and Holiday Magic is a non-profit organization with a mission to collect toys, gifts and donations and provide them to Long Island's less fortunate children and their families. This gives them a happier and brighter holiday, delivering magic, smiles, hope and gifts to deserving children. During this holiday season alone, they will service close to 10,000 needy children on Long Island. Unfortunately, that number has grown each year. The lacrosse team has connected with some of those children, who attend a special after school program in Center Moriches that is run by Ms. Helen Fechter at the Clayton-Huey Elementary School.
Once a year, the school program hosts the special evening when the gym and auditorium are transformed into a Winter Wonderland. Over 120 adults and excited children were present this year on Wednesday evening, December 11, plus the 25 representatives from the St. Joseph's College lacrosse team along with over twenty members of the West Hampton Boys' lacrosse team. Both teams combined to provide the gifts for the evening.
The night before the event, St. Joseph's assistant coach Julianne Bernatzky organized and gathered all the bags of gifts together at St. Joseph's Danzi Athletic Center, and delivered them to head coach Bob Vlahakis and Mrs. Vlahakis, who, in turn, delivered them the next morning to the elementary school. At the school, the bags were organized carefully and put up on the decorated stage where Santa would appear that evening.
At 5 p.m. the families began filing into the gymnasium and found a place at one of the many festive tables that were set up. Unseen by the kids, the St. Joseph's team went through the back door and onto the stage, hidden by the curtains. Meanwhile, Christmas music was blaring through the auditorium until Santa himself (played by Jamie LaBelle) made an appearance walking through the crowd and posing with the kids. Santa climbed up onto the stage, and the curtains opened up revealing the SJC team wearing their specially made red "Christmas Magic" shirts.
One by one, the children's names are called and they and their parents made it up onto the stage to sit and chat with Santa, and a Santa's helper (one of the lacrosse players). Together they opened up one present then all posed together for a picture. Each SJC player then walked the child and their parent back to their tables to open up more gifts and play with them. Some families preferred to wait and open the other gifts on Christmas morning.
Freshman newcomer Kelly Walsh described the scene well, "Watching the children's faces light up when they saw Santa was heartwarming. As they opened their gifts to show their parents with so much joy, that just made it even more special. I could tell the kids really enjoyed themselves because none of the kids wanted to leave Santa. Christmas Magic was a great experience for me and my team and I can't wait to get involved again next year."
Although the lacrosse team they had shopped for the gifts for the children, the presents were given out anonymously and unselfishly without a personal acknowledgement, except for the happy expressions on the kids and parent's faces. In the end, the families all left with fond memories and were overwhelmed by the generosity of the student-athletes, as their children were able to feel a little more joy during the Christmas season.
The SJC team left seeing that their efforts for a third year, gave genuine and heartfelt joy to some young children and parents whose lives they had touched in a very special way.
Junior Caitlynn Webber perhaps summed it all up best, "Coach Vlahakis has always told us that what we do off of the field together is just as important, if not more important, than what we do together on the field. For the past three years, Christmas Magic has kicked off our season; it's always the first time that our whole team is in the same place, at the same time. It's a big night for our team, it really sets the tone for our season and gives us the chance to begin learning how to work together, but as soon as the curtains open and the children see Santa, when the jolly holiday tunes start playing and everyone starts to clap, we all seem to remember that it's really not about us at all. The celebration is about giving for the sake of giving, knowing that a child now has a reason to smile this holiday season even if it's just for a short moment. The night is always festive, the cookies are always delicious and the feeling that our team has after leaving is always unmatched. It's an experience I feel very privileged to be a part of and to continue to be a part of with my team each year."
Special Note: Charlie Russo is the Chair of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, and is the founder and driving force behind the charitable organizations Christmas Magic, Giving Tree Camp and Every Child's Dream. The SJC women's lacrosse team considers him to be a "guardian angel" for all of these young kids on Long Island.