By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen
Like a lot of people this time of year, Jeanne Cosentino and Steve Spahr are a little worn out. But that’s to be expected when you volunteer for Holiday Express and just one of your many duties is portraying Mrs. and Mr. Santa Claus.
From Nov. 7 through Dec. 24, the local non-profit charity will visit 90 organizations and about 24,000 people in the tristate area, providing a meal, concert and a canvas gift bag.
More important than the food and gifts, Cosentino said, is the one-on-one time with people in need. Founded in 1993, the organization focuses on serving people who are isolated, poor, homeless, have mental and physical challenges, are in addiction and recovery programs, or have serious illnesses.
“We’re very hands on,” she explained. “If you see a homeless person, everyone kind of shies away. We’ll be at a place and I’ll put a hand on your shoulder. I’ll look into your eyes. The gift of human contact. It’s Holiday Express’ tag line.”
Her good friend, partner and stage spouse, Spahr agrees. At each event, he said, the song “All Alone on Christmas” is played twice. It includes the lyric, “Because nobody ought to be all alone on Christmas.” (Written by Two River area native Steve Van Zandt, the song was recorded by Darlene Love, and used on the soundtrack of “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.”)
It’s often the little things that have the biggest impact, Cosentino said. Once, at an adult group home, she was on garbage duty.
“It’s one of my favorite duties. You walk around with a garbage bag, take the plates, and you talk to people,” she explained. “So this older gentleman was sitting and I asked him if he wanted to dance and he said, ‘I can dance, but I don’t wanna.’ Every time I passed him all afternoon he would say the same thing and we would laugh.
“Now, the very next year, I was pouring sodas and all of a sudden my girlfriend is poking me saying, ‘I think that guy is trying to get your attention.’ I looked over and he says, ‘I can dance, but I don’t wanna.’ He remembered.
“But the crazy part of the story is that when the band started he came up to me and said, ‘I do wanna dance with you. Will you dance with me?’
“That’s what it’s all about.”
Spahr agrees, and tells a story about a man who just sat in his wheelchair and didn’t engage.
“I was playing Santa Claus at the show and the ladies said ‘He won’t talk. He’ll ignore you.’ But when he saw me he gave me a hug and the lady started crying. She said, ‘I’ve taken care of that man for five years and I’ve never seen him show emotion to anybody or shake their hand or anything.’ ”
Cosentino, who has lived in Oceanport for about 30 years, is married to a childhood friend of Spahr’s, who grew up in Sea Bright and recently moved to Eatontown. Spahr is a retired Sea Bright policeman and Cosentino is an agent at E&K Insurance, Eatontown. They’ve been together as the Clauses for three or four years, but have been involved with the charity for decades, they said.
The easy kind of rapport that comes from a long acquaintance was obvious during a recent interview at the bustling Holiday Express warehouse at 968 Shrewsbury Ave., Tinton Falls, which includes an elves-only door. About a dozen “elves” from the Shrewsbury Youth Athletic Association and 10 adults were stuffing new Holiday Express canvas bags for the homeless that included a blanket, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste, socks, gloves, hat, and scarf.
First, though, they watched a short video about Holiday Express and the people it helps. Maurice Gittines, 11, said he was surprised to learn there are people so poor they can’t afford Christmas gifts.
“It gives me a warm feeling to help them,” he said. “I hope I make a difference.”
Everybody associated with Holiday Express hopes to make a difference. Spahr said founder Tim McLoone’s goal for next year is to increase the number of concerts to 100. That’s a lot of visits from Santa Claus.
“Mrs. Claus isn’t at every event,” Cosentino joked. “Her time is way more valuable.”
“She’s not retired,” Spahr joked back. “But Santa Claus goes to every event, although I don’t do every event. There’s a lot of people who play Santa.” But only Spahr and Cosentino play Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the public events, including Red Bank’s tree lighting, the Sunset Clambake, and shows at the Count Basie in Red Bank, Great Adventure in Jackson and NJPAC in Newark.
“We often wonder how many Christmas cards we’re on because people bring their kids all dressed up to take pictures with us,” Cosentino said.
“It’s just so fun,” she added. “Sometimes the kids will be intimidated by Santa and they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Would you tell him I didn’t mean it and I’m really sorry’.”
Other times children they know will approach, but not recognize them, like the time the grandchildren of a fellow volunteer visited and she addressed them by name.
“They turned to their mother and said, ‘Oh my God, Mrs. Claus knows our names.’ And I heard it and said, ‘Of course I know your name. And Santa does, too.’ ”
When not performing, Cosentino, who is in charge of arts and crafts, may be face-painting, or stage managing an event, or acting as the liaison with a venue to plan its show. Spahr spends time at the warehouse doing whatever needs to be done.
“If you live at the Jersey Shore you can’t imagine not being at the beach every summer,” Cosentino said. “I can’t imagine living here and not being with Holiday Express every Christmas. It’s been such a big part of my life.”
Even, she said, when it can break her heart and told this story:
“I met a man one year at Eva’s Village (a shelter and soup kitchen in Paterson). I was dancing with him and all of a sudden he stops and grabs me. ‘Is it true we’re getting a gift on the way out?’ I said, yeah, everybody’s getting a gift bag. ‘Wait a minute. I heard there was a blanket.’ Yeah, everybody’s getting a blanket, too. He hugged me and said, ‘God bless you. It’s been getting cold on the streets.’ ”
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