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Holiday Helper: A 50-year tradition of serving others

Rowan Today, November 9, 2016

Kayla Raparelli is pretty much in awe of the 50-year Rowan University tradition she worked to uphold.

“A 50-year tradition…that’s more than double my age. I can’t really fathom that,” the junior psychology major says of Holiday Helper, which began at Rowan as Project Santa. Though the record-keeping is inexact, the student-led initiative has raised thousands and thousands for local charitable organizations.

This year’s Holiday Helper auction, during which audience members bid on more than 100 donated items ranging from themed baskets to one-of-a-kind items, such as a signed “Game of Thrones” script, signed Philadelphia Eagles memorabilia, an iPad Air 2, gift baskets, a signed Fender guitar, and lunch with Rowan President Ali A. Houshmand, was held on Saturday, Nov. 19, in the Eynon Ballroom of the Chamberlain Student Center.

Altogether, students raised more than $8,000 for the Front Row Foundation.

Front Row helps people facing critical health challenges receive tickets to sit in the front row of their favorite sports team, musician or show. And, for the first time, the money raised during Holiday Helper will go to assist a member of the Rowan community, Raparelli announced at the event.

Nikki Colasanti, 34, an administrative assistant in the Office of Orientation and Student Leadership Programs, was diagnosed with breast cancer the spring. In a letter read by Raparaelli at Holiday Helper, Front Row organizers announced that Colasanti will be the direct recipient of the students’ efforts.

A Dallas Cowboys fan her entire life, Colasanti and her husband will fly first class to Dallas, where they’ll watch the Cowboys take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 18. Their tickets are on the 50-yard-line and they’ll receive a limo ride to and from the stadium.

Founded by WGLS-FM

Holiday Helper—the name was changed from Project Santa more than a decade ago—was founded by students at Rowan Radio 89.7 WGLS-FM as a way to assist families in need in and around Gloucester County.

Back then, the students held a 24-hour radio thon. As the years progressed, the event got larger and turned into a four-day initiative that brought the campus community together, recalls 1971 alumnus Warren Crescenzo, who was program director of WGLS-FM for three years in the late 1960s. The event was led by WGLS-FM and various student groups for many years, including the sophomore and freshman classes and the Student Government Association. In 2012, SUP took it over.

“It was an interesting project in that it involved all parts of campus,” Crescenzo recalls. “The radio thon went around the clock from Thursday to Sunday night. It was wonderful to see people come together for the community.”

In subsequent years, students staged stunts—kissing booths, sit-up and dance contests, jump rope-a-thons—to raise funds and local celebrity guests made appearances to drum up donations. The Phillie Phanatic and the Eagles cheerleaders made repeat appearances.

Longtime emcee

The auction, which today is an event held in just one evening, has been a staple since Holiday’s Helper’s inception. Rowan’s late president, Mark Chamberlain, was an early auctioneer, but the job for the past 34 years (except 2013, when he had a scheduling conflict) has fallen in the capable hands of Communication Studies Professor Ed Streb, who retired on Sept. 1 after 37 years of teaching at Rowan.

Streb flew in from his home in Evanston, Ill. this year to again serve as auctioneer, a job the former University Senate president clearly relishes.

“The auction used to start at 6 o’clock and go until 1:30 in the morning. I used to lose my voice,” he says. “I’ve gotten a kick out of serving as auctioneer. People come for a bargain, but in this case, the money goes to charity. I always leave there with a really good feeling. SUP has done a fantastic job organizing Holiday Helper the last few years.”

Some of the donated items have been challenging “sells,” Streb laughs.

‘If I can’t get at least $5 for this, I’m going to start singing’

“In the early years, we’d always get a Paul Anka cassette tape. It happened year after year. I used to say, ‘If I can’t get at least $5 for this, I’m going to start singing,’” he remembers.

Without fail, the bidding would begin, Streb says.

About 15 years ago, two jackets sporting the likeness of comedian and actor Buddy Hackett went on the auction block.

“And this was not in Buddy Hackett’s heyday,” says Streb. “Most of the kids had no idea who Buddy Hackett was.”

Yet, the audience got caught up in the bidding war and Streb ended up auctioning off two of the jackets for around $60 apiece.

Once, a student bought the ultimate Christmas present for his father--a golf cap autographed by former president Gerald Ford. Streb, himself, has been known to reach into his own pocket when an item interests him. He recalls paying about $100 for a letter “F” from Wheel of Fortune, signed by both Pat Sajak and Vanna White. The letter was from the days of the game show when White would physically turn over each letter.

“I told my students, ‘It’s the only ‘F’ I’ve ever gotten and I’m not afraid to give them out,’” jokes Streb. “You can’t buy these things at Macy’s.”

‘A real community spirit about Rowan’

Raparelli notes that student organizers annually receive substantial community support from businesses and organizations in around Glassboro. Many have donated to the auction for many years.

“We do try to keep donations local. There’s a real community spirit about Rowan. We’ve found that many people in the community love Rowan,” says Raparelli, adding that last year’s auction raised $15,000 for the Front Row Foundation.

The event’s distinction as the longest-standing student-led charitable event at Rowan is well earned, Crescenzo notes, adding that, through Holiday Helper and Project Santa, generations of students have learned what it means to give of themselves to help others in need.

“Because of students’ efforts, someone who maybe didn’t have a Christmas present got one. Someone who didn’t have food on the table got some.

“It’s not always the millionaire donations that make a big difference,” Crescenzo continues. “You can’t beat doing something at the grassroots level.”

“It’s absolutely incredible that Holiday Helper has been going on for 50 years,” adds Raparelli, who led the 20-member auction committee as director of charitable events for SUP. “It’s such an important tradition for the University.”

http://today.rowan.edu/home/news/2016/11/09/holiday-helper-50-year-tradition-serving-others