Story and photos by Madelynne Kislovsky
A unique kind of holiday spirit jingled through the air on a Monday night as Holiday Express began their first rehearsal of the season.
The nonprofit, volunteer organization is made up of more than 150 musicians who perform concerts for homeless shelters, children’s hospitals, soup kitchens, and more.
The organization is about to enter its 23rd season of delivering music, food, gifts, and support to those in need during the holiday season. “There seems to be a power of music, especially when it comes from the heart and you mean it – and we do,” Holiday Express founder Tim McLoone said before leading the rehearsal.
Holiday Express has performed for and aided over 16,000 people in seven states all over the tristate area. The group has distributed more than 300,000 gift bags, held 988 events, and visited more than 80 organizations since their takeoff 22 years ago. Their season lasts from November until Christmas Eve.
The band was founded in 1993 by Tim McLoone, a talented musician, restaurateur, and sports announcer. He is frontman for his own band, Tim McLoone and the Shirleys.
McLoone became inspired by this type of community service when a job he previously had years ago with the New Jersey Nets held an event and fed the local homeless on Christmas Eve. He did it again the following year, and this time, brought a boom box to play cassette tapes while he worked, and got an overwhelming positive response. “It lit me up,” McLoone said. “It’s incredibly true that it’s better to give than receive. These people in need are pretty much invisible in our society. So we throw them the biggest party we can, the band and music is only part of it. The Express part is us coming to them,” McLoone said.
Holiday Express has added about 16 events to their to-do list this year. This caused the group to begin rehearsing in early November as opposed to the middle of the month.
“The goal is that even with these added shows, it won’t be different,” McLoone said. “What we try to do is make sure they’re getting the same show every time. It’s a logistical challenge – more food, more gift bags. Throwing one house party is time consuming – doing 81 is crazy!”
McLoone said that the group plans to host 90 events next year, and then 100 for their 25th year. They are coming up on their 1,000th event since they began in 1993.
Holiday Express also has a Giving Partner Program, where they seek groups and individuals interested in purchasing items on the wish lists of the organizations in need that season. “When you see the need, it leaves you feeling empty,” the lead musician said. McLoone explained how he felt badly leaving the shelters and hospitals he visited without leaving anything behind, and decided to ask for a wish list of things out of reach of their budgets. Holiday Express now matches generous donors with organizations in need to make the experience as fulfilling as possible.
As one of the newer members of Holiday Express, Joel Mikulyak of Sea Bright was at his first rehearsal with the group. “Any free time I have, I try to spend it here,” Mikulyak said. “It’s nice to give back, and music is the way to do it for me.”
Jim Celestino of Oceanport is a veteran volunteer who joined the group a year after its formation. He started with Holiday Express by stuffing gift bags and doing behind-the-scenes work, but mentioned to McLoone that he played the guitar and was able to perform with the band one night. “I was hooked,” Celestino said. “The sense of community was amazing. This year, since we’ve gone from 65 events to 81, everyone is giving up personal obligations to make the events special.”
Holiday Express is made up of volunteers of all ages, young and old alike. Volunteers are needed in the warehouse to pack bags, ensure all of the equipment is working properly for every show, and to attend the shows to help spend time with those in need. One of these volunteers is Tim McLoone’s 15-year-old daughter, Hannah. “I would always go up on stage with my dad when I was little,” Hannah said. “I love going to shows and being able to interact with other kids and people, being able to sing with them, and give them the attention that they need.”
The group would be nothing without their behind-the-scenes crew, including the board of trustees. Amy Broza of Neptune, the board’s secretary, is one example of how these volunteers go above and beyond to make the experience of Holiday Express the best it can be.
Broza began singing in the chorus with Holiday Express in 1996, and now helps organize the many singers in the musical group. “By hit or miss or by design, it works,” she said. “Each year brings something new musically. New people bring new ideas, and we don’t look at it as what we can do for people who come to see us, it’s what we can do for those we go to see – those who are most in need.
“My favorite thing about this is that you learn so much about yourself when you do this,” Broza said. “No matter how different the people we perform for are, we learn how they are truly the same as us. We’re not performing at people, we’re singing with them, and it grows from there.”
Holiday Express can sometimes perform up to three events a day, forcing the ensemble to break up into smaller groups, depending on how many people are needed.
They perform both holiday and mainstream songs for their younger audiences. “Our audiences don’t care what our problems might be,” McLoone told his band of musicians on their first rehearsal of the season. “They’re waiting for us to come and give them a great musical experience, and we must do so. It’s crucial in these people’s lives, and I’m always told how impactful this is for them.”
The band rehearsed several songs, including “Happy Holidays,” “Uptown Funk,” and their theme song, “Alone on Christmas.” The room filled with a cheerful and united front, backed by a love of music and bringing Christmas spirit to those in need.
Holiday Express will perform at the Red Bank Town Lighting on Friday, Nov. 27. The organization plans to give out 20,000 gift bags this season. For information on how to volunteer or donate, visit www.holidayexpress.org.
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