If you take a drive around the North Fork this time of year you’ll see plenty of festive Christmas lights, happy snowmen and giant Santa Claus blow-ups. But what you won’t see are the families who are struggling to put food on the table and keep their kids warm. For some North Fork residents, there is no money for lights and snowmen — or Christmas gifts.
Enter Tim Bialeski and two dozen of his fellow Lions Club members. They are gathered at the American Legion in Mattituck on a cold December night when most people are home with their families or rushing to get last-minute shopping done.
This is Christmas Spirit.
Hundreds of toys and gifts, all wrapped, tagged and bagged, are piled in the Legion meeting room awaiting distribution to the North Fork’s most needy residents, many of them in the Mattituck area. And this troop of men is here to deliver all these presents to kids who otherwise would have no gifts for Christmas.
Bialeski is the chairman of the Mattituck Lions Club’s annual Christmas Spirit toy drive and he has been one busy guy coordinating all of the details that led to this room full of toys and gifts waiting to be delivered.
“We have over 30 families this year,” said Bialeski. “We get lists of names from local churches, from CAST and just by word of mouth. That’s how we find people who are in need and those are the ones we help. Along with all the donated food and gifts, we use some of the money raised at the Strawberry Festival to supplement the donations.”
Local businesses pitch in to help, providing space in their shops for gift collection boxes and donating food. Volunteers pick up the gifts and local “elves” do all the wrapping.
It takes a lot of people to get the job done and there are volunteers from many organizations who join in the effort.
“The Boy Scouts organized food drives,” said Bialeski. “The Lions, Leos, Kait’s Angels and Judy Thilberg did all the wrapping and tagging for us. Wendy’s Deli collected multiple boxes of toys. Billy’s By the Bay gave us toys, C.J.’s American Grill donated food and drinks to all the people who deliver the packages. Wally from Handy Pantry donated hams and canned goods, Cliff from the Elbow Room donated the turkeys, and Kujawski Farms donated potatoes. There were also some Secret Santas who preferred to keep their identities a secret.”
Carrying a thick folder full of lists and schedules, Bialeski is busy taking care of last minute details and finalizing the delivery assignments when Santa shows up. Homes with young children will have gifts delivered by Santa and his elves and the rest will be dropped off by the other volunteers.
“It can get pretty emotional when we go to the houses,” says Bialeski. “I like to involve the newer members [of the Lions Club]. It’s really special.”
Mike Piscatelli, who has been involved in Christmas Spirit for 10 years, agrees.
“It’s really a heartwarming thing when you’re visiting houses where these are the only presents they’ll get. It puts it all in perspective really. I try to instill this in my daughter Alexandra, who’s 10 years old. She does things like donate to Locks for Love and she understands how fortunate she is. ‘Tis the season to spread it out. And to be able to do this, to visit families and give them presents, well, it’s a reward for all our hard work volunteering at the Strawberry Festival.”
As the men load up the trucks and prepare to leave, Bialeski points to several bags of toys that are not going out tonight. There was an abundance of toys this year, but the leftovers will find themselves in the hands of kids this Christmas.
“I plan to go over to Stony Brook to drop off toys,” says Bialeski. “Might as well make some more kids smile for the holidays.”