HILLSIDE, NJ — It seems that Santa did not forget about Hillside. From Dec. 12 to 15, the Santa Express travelled through the streets of Hillside, dropping off presents to excited children who could not wait to get a look at Santa as he brought gifts right to their homes.
The Santa Express, an initiative started by the Hillside Police Department, has been delighting residents for several years, and this year was no exception.
Officer Natalie Ogonowski, one of the event’s founders, said the popular initiative is one of the reasons she chose to work in law enforcement.
“I became a police officer for several reasons, but one was being able to improve my community,” Ogonowski told LocalSource.
Ogonowski, who was born and raised in Hillside, said she had a great upbringing in the township, and becoming a police officer here has allowed her to forge a relationship with local residents, including children.
“I’m always looking for a new way to connect with them and let them see the officers in this town truly care,” said Ogonowski. “Sometimes, in the course of doing our job, people don’t get to realize police officers are human too. We are more than just the badge and uniform on the outside. We are mothers, fathers, friends, sisters, brothers, husbands and wives under those uniforms.”
Ogonowski said that her desire to bring everyone together for the holidays inspired the event.
“I wanted to do something to bring us all together around the holidays, something that was fun for everyone. Because believe me: these officers love this event just as much, if not more, than the kids getting the gifts,” she said.
Ogonowski said that, although the fire department usually delivers gifts from Santa to residents in neighboring towns, she asked herself why the police department couldn’t do the same thing.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t Santa be escorted by the police department?’” Ogonowski said.
So she and recently retired Hillside Lt. Michael Katsoudas tossed the idea around and came up with a game plan, “and Santa Express was born,” she said.
Wayne Shoupe, an HPD auxiliary officer, was more than happy to volunteer to dress up as Santa, Ogonowski said. In addition, the owner of Route 22 Limo jumped on board and offered the use of “Santa’s sleigh” to deliver the gifts. The sleigh is actually a party bus, according to Ogonowski, and it provided more than enough room for the many gifts Santa had to deliver.
Others in the Hillside community also offered a helping hand for the initiative.
“FOP Lodge No. 82 and No. 160 bought Santa his suit, and Peerless beverage was kind enough to have signs made up for us that we display on Santa’s sleigh,” Ogonowski said. “And last but not least, the officers and dispatchers who volunteer their time to escort Santa as he distributes the gifts throughout town.”
Parents were asked to bring one small wrapped gift to deliver to each of their own children, along with a small donation to a the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
“We sign them up on one of the nights they chose to have the gift they bought delivered to their house by Santa,” said Ogonowski. “We’ve got a pretty good method in place now that allows us to keep track of which gift gets delivered to what house by Santa.”
Katsoudas told LocalSource that the event is all about community.
“The whole idea is to give back to the community, period,” Katsoudas said. “That spirit is echoed by Officer Ogonowski, who continues to lead the Santa Express team. Natalie runs tirelessly to make sure everyone is notified and everything is in order and a million other things to make this work. None of us is looking for a pat on the back. We do it because we want to. We plan and plan to make certain that the program runs without a hiccup.”
According to Schoup, playing Santa has been a great experience.
“I would not miss this for the world,” Schoup told LocalSource. “The expression on the face of the children and the parents is absolutely priceless.”
The first year of the event, 100 children were visited by Santa on two nights; last year, said Ogonowski, the event grew to 200 kids during the course of four nights, and this year it was even bigger.
“This year we are also doing four nights with about 250 kids,” she said. “Who knows what next year will bring?”
With four to six officers and dispatchers — who Ogonowski refers to as “Santa’s elves” — escorting Santa on his decorated “sleigh,” the festive entourage headed out into the night to deliver gifts, escorted by flashing police cars and motorcycles.
“The cars and motorcycles make sure the kids know Santa has arrived by using the lights, sirens and playing Christmas music over the loudspeakers,” said Ogonowski. “Every year the kids and neighbors are waiting anxiously at the door when they hear us coming. The community seems in awe of our arrival and I think it truly brings out the Christmas spirit in everyone throughout town.”
Acting Hillside Police Chief Louis Panarese was also on board the sleigh as Santa was making his early rounds.
“I am very happy to see the joy on the faces of the children and parents and I will continue to support the Santa Express team,” Panarese told LocalSource in an email. “I can certainly see the positive impact this has on the community, and great work by the officers.”
According to Ogonowski, some parents have called and emailed the police department to thank the officers and to let them know how much this event means to them and their children.
“This was the greatest holiday experience our family has had with the township,” one Hillside resident said. “We have been residents of Hillside since 1989 and never had such a connection. Hopefully this program can continue for many years.”
Another resident was just as thrilled, saying, “What you guys did yesterday was priceless. Do you know the magic, the dreams, the hope that comes to kids’ hearts when they believe in something bigger than the reality and that happens in such a magical manner? We on the parents’ side could see the joy in the eyes of all of you. That is what makes it special. We could see you guys were not doing it because you have to but because you care.”
Ogonowski said these sentiments compel the HPD to continue to hold the event.
“This is exactly the reason I wanted to do this, and this is the reason the officers, dispatchers, Mike and myself continue to do this event,” she said. “We have an amazing community of people here in Hillside. We are honored to serve them and feel privileged to share in helping them celebrate the true spirit of the holiday season.”