By Mary Ann Bourbeau |
Tim McLoone started Holiday Express as a way to spread Christmas cheer to those with the greatest need. The idea came about in 1991 when he was working as an announcer for the New Jersey Nets and witnessed one of the players organize an event to feed the homeless at Saint John’s Soup Kitchen in Newark.
“It was just food and no music,” said McLoone, an accomplished musician, athlete and restaurateur.
With so many resources at hand, he pitched in the following year, bringing a few friends with gifts and a boom box with holiday music by the likes of Johnny Mathis. He kicked it up a notch in 1993, calling on some musicians, organizing rehearsals and hosting 10 events with live music, food and gifts for those in need.
“We thought we were doing a generous thing but we realized we were feeding our own souls,” he said.
Fast forward to 2017, when Holiday Express is celebrating its 25th anniversary by hosting 100 charity events in 49 days. Though most of the events are private, two public concerts will take place on Dec. 18 and 19 at the Count Basie Theatre as a fundraiser to help the organization. Its mission is to help people with mental and physical challenges, veterans, individuals in addiction and recovery programs, the isolated, the poor, the homeless and children with serious illnesses. Everyone receives a gift bag filled with much needed items such as socks, hats, gloves and toiletries, and each event includes a visit from the Grinch, Frosty and Santa Claus.
“A lot of these people are in situations because of bad choices, accidents or bad breaks,” he said. “Some of them never had a chance.”
Through the healing power of music and friendship, McLoone and his volunteers aim to improve the quality of life for those who are often forgotten during the holidays. He knows firsthand of the struggles one can endure. His brother’s son was born with cerebral palsy and never was able to speak or walk.
“Because of my personal knowledge, I look at these families and I know the stress and pain they’re under,” McLoone said. “I know we don’t solve any problems, but when we come in the room, there’s an astonishing level of excitement.”
More than 2,000 volunteers work year-round to plan these events, hoping to make a difference in the lives of adults and children in need.
“Four years ago, we did 70 shows,” said McLoone. “The next year 80, then 90. We wanted to do 100 for our 25th year. So much hard work went into it but we all felt empowered to do it.”
“We’ve been doing Saint John’s for 25 years now,” said McLoone. “We have a tent and a 20-piece band, and my restaurant serves brunch. We get 500 to 800 people in off the street.”
The singers and musicians are all professionals, and many are well known in the Jersey Shore area. They are all volunteers, since Holiday Express receives no state or federal funding. All the money, food and gift bag items are donated or purchased at discounted prices. The organization hosts several fundraisers during the year, the biggest of which is at the Count Basie Theatre. This year’s shows will take place on Dec. 18 and 19, featuring 50 musicians and singers.
“We give people a walloping show,” said McLoone. “We have had various celebrities over the years – Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Joe Piscopo – but the most impactful was last year with two singers we met on line at a Trenton soup kitchen. It was crazy good. I don’t overplay what we do. We don’t cure disease or build homes, but we bring a level of solace and encouragement. There’s a secret magic to music.”
The 25th Anniversary Holiday Express benefit concerts are presented by Stillwell-Hansen Inc. and Investors Bank. Tickets are $25 to $125. For more information, visit www.thebasie.org or www.holidayexpress.org.
This article was first published in the Nov. 30-Dec. 7, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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