In the last decade, Hamilton-based nonprofit Joey’s Little Angels has made the holiday season a bit brighter for more than 20,000 sick children. The tradition continues in 2020, with an ever-expanding reach.
This year is the 10th time JLA will conduct a Christmas toy drive. What started as a way for Nicole and James Angiolino to give back has grown into a massive effort that requires the assistance of volunteers from around the region and helps children at hospitals across the United States.
The main event every year is an in-person celebration—which is scheduled for Nov. 28 at Notre Dame High School in Lawrence—where thousands of toys are collected. But JLA will be accepting and distributing donations up until Christmas Day.
Donations will be delivered to 26 hospitals across the country. Recipients include patients at Capital Health in Hopewell and children’s hospitals in Los Angeles, Boston and Cincinnati.
The Angiolinos pack the toys donated at the in-person drive into boxes and ship them to the hospitals furthest afield. Donations that come in December are donated to more local hospitals, and often hand delivered by the Angiolinos themselves or a volunteer.
Hospitals specifically want toys that can be cleaned with sanitizing wipes—items like Play-Doh, Legos, arts and crafts materials, board games and, for older children, gift cards to Amazon, Target or Walmart. Stuffed animals or blankets need laundering, and won’t be accepted. A complete wish list of needed items is available on the JLA website.
The toy drive and Joey’s Little Angels itself was hatched from the Angiolino family’s own experience. Their son, Joey, was diagnosed at 8-months old with Hurler Syndrome, a disease so rare that he had the first case ever seen in New Jersey. The Angiolinos sought the best treatment for Joey, which brought them to Duke University’s Division of Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation and forced them to temporarily relocate from Hamilton to North Carolina. Duke’s PBMT is a 16-bed facility that treats 80-100 children every year.
When Joey died in July 2010, at 15-months old, the Angiolinos decided they wanted to help comfort children and families experiencing what they and Joey had just endured. Joey’s Little Angels formed in 2010, and in 2011, they started a Christmas toy drive for children at Duke. JLA received 87 toys that year, a haul that filled an entire room in the Angiolinos’ Hamilton home. The next year, in 2012, they tripled that amount, giving 257 toys to kids at Duke.
In subsequent years, they’ve added more hospitals as response has grown. Last year, JLA donated more than 5,000 toys to 25 hospitals across the country. JLA is up to 26 hospitals this year.
Nicole and James are both teachers in the Hamilton Township School District and coach local sports teams. James is currently a soccer coach at Notre Dame High School and with Player Development Academy, as well as a basketball coach at St. Raphael’s in Hamilton. Nicole coaches the Hibernian Herricanes soccer team. They’ve used their connections to spread the word about Joey’s Little Angels. James said that athletes at every school in the area have volunteered with Joey’s Little Angels.
“The fact that so many people in the community want to be involved, it’s awesome,” James Angiolino said. “We’ve come a long way. We’ve grown considerably.”