By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – When brothers Matt and Joe Szotak map out the handmade holiday display spanning their neighboring front lawns on Thanksgiving weekend each year, it’s done with a smile in mind.
Not only is it for their young North Middletown neighbors, but also for underprivileged children around the world who physically can’t smile because they were born with a cleft lip and cleft palate.
On Saturday evening, flanked by tables loaded with hot chocolate and homemade cupcakes, the Szotak families hosted an annual outdoor party for their neighbors to both enjoy the display at 17 and 19 Niles Avenue, and offer a donation for the special surgeries.
It was the third year in a row they dedicated the Szotak Christmas Spectacular, showcasing Matt Szotak’s artistic talents with dozens of different homemade cartoon, comic book, pop culture and television characters, to fundraise for Operation Smile, an international nonprofit which purchases supplies for the special surgeries
“It’s almost like ‘Field of Dreams’ – if you build it, they will come,” said Matt Szotak. “The people who come here are the real heroes.”
For the greater part of two decades, Matt Szotak has been crafting and building his own Christmas decorations. It started following a suggestion from his mother, Joann, to take some plywood destined for the dump and repurpose it into replica candy canes. It turned into an annual project.
Since then, each holiday season has been met with new additions to the celebration. From childhood characters – like the Peanuts, the Smurfs, and Matt’s personal favorite, Underdog and Shoeshine Boy – to newer ones like Wonder Woman and the Minions, Matt believes there’s something for everyone. In total, he estimates there are around 120 different characters.
“Visually the kids love it, and with that, there is a very personal kind of touch,” said Matt, who works for a water utility.
Last year, Matt Szotak’s wife, Jen, said about 250 people flocked to their cul-de-sac to enjoy the night. With money raised from that evening, along with drive-by donations throughout the entire month and matching funds, the Szotaks raised just shy of $10,000. Operation Smile estimates it costs about $240 per operation, so the Szotak’s believe the funds they forwarded on paid for approximately 41 reconstructive surgeries.
“It’s something we’ll always do,” Jen Szotak said. “It was once our little thing that’s now turned into a really big thing.”
Why Operation Smile? When Matt Szotak’s aunt, Eileen Keanan, was recovering from surgery, she began reading up on charitable work her doctor had done through Operation Smile. The next holiday season, the Szotaks did some small fundraising inside the family and then decided to link it to their holiday extravaganza.
“If you provide people with a venue to be able to give and do this, you can see how there’s still so much good,” Matt Szotak said. “You just don’t see it that much because everybody is so busy.”
Matt, a lifelong artist who says he specializes in realistic art, spends plenty of time preparing for the holiday season. With help from his young daughters Cat and Lauren, they trace, cut, paint and finish the new additions each season.
This year’s latest ornaments might be the most noticeable. Looking for more typography in the display, the words “Believe,” “Imagine,” “Love,” “Dream,” “Hope,” and “Joy” all made their first appearance, shaped in myriad fonts and finished in a pearl-white coat of paint.
Also new to the scene was a roughly 7-foot-tall replica of Justice League superhero Wonder Woman, adorned with her signature attire and battle gear. Matt Szotak said that one was special, made for a recently-passed family friend. Her name, Marina, is subtly scripted on the inside of the shield.
While it’s Matt Szotak and his daughters who do all the artistic work, his younger brother Joe Szotak does the heavy lifting to set the decorations into the ground. The brothers have been neighbors for over a decade and that’s helped spread the Szotak Christmas Spectacular across their two front yards.
“It’s very satisfying and frankly, very humbling, too,” said Joe Szotak, who is a college campus policeman. “We’re a very fortunate family and we don’t take our fortunes lightly. It’s nice to do something that’s not all about us.”
On Saturday evening, well over 100 Middletown neighbors came out to enjoy the decorative display with their children and loved ones.
Virginia Adams, a Belford resident, said she saw a post about the event on Facebook and decided to come with her husband.
“I was bored tonight, just wanted to get out of the house a little bit and see some lights,” she said. “But what really got me was how this was for Operation Smile – that drew me in,” adding she did donate to the cause.
Jill Reeves, whose children were bouncing from decoration to decoration, said she’s glad there’s an event like this in Middletown.
“I think it’s very thoughtful,” she said. “It’s a great way to get the community together and a great way to share knowledge about the cause.”
On Jan. 1, the display will quickly come down – Matt Szotak doesn’t want to overdo it – and the characters will be stacked up and stowed away in his garage. But until then, a small donation box will sit at the foot of his driveway, and the lights will stay on each night for everyone to view.
“It’s all just faceless, pure generosity – people giving from their heart,” he said. “I never expected people to do all of this.”
This article was first published in the Dec. 21-28, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.
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