Inner-city youth receive donated backpacks

Summer program culminates with fun celebration

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  • Pictured in the back is Tilly Ann Novoa, Susan Loyas and Tilly Giresi, front, Asia, 8, Kemora, 9, and De'Zaniva, 11. photos by rose sgarlato

  • Tatiana, 7, has fun with some hula hoops.

  • A cup building contest

  • Volunteers Maggie Squillante and Maura Chozick buddy up with Disleiui, 5, and sister Maria, 7.

  • Some of Tilly's Kids participants check out their new backpacks.

  • Volunteer Christie Taylor gives hands out a new backpack.

  • A happy student gets a colorful new backpack.

  • Alex, 4, is pictured.

By Rose Sgarlato

— Pass It Along hosted a backpack party on Aug. 13 for Tilly’s Kids, celebrating the culmination of its summer program.

Children ages four through 12 from the House of Mercy mission in Newark make up Tilly’s Kids, a program that Pass It Along and founder Tilly Giresi started 13 years ago.

“Tilly’s Kids brings 35 kids each week during the month of July to Sussex County four days a week for different activities. The program fosters positive self-esteem, resiliency and mentoring,” said Kelly Bonventre, director of programs and annual events for Pass It Along.

The participating children are all living below the poverty level and are paired with volunteers who serve as role models. Referred to as buddies, the volunteers are local high school and college students. A variety of activities are held including a weekly visit to Swartswood State Park and an educational awareness program focusing on the environment.

Residents of Byram, Giresi and her husband are members of the House of Mercy in Newark and started the mission, made up of children from the neighborhood and church, some originally from Haiti, Mexico and Nigeria.

“This was an opportunity to get these kids out of the city to know there is more than the inner city. When they buddy up they feel special and loved. And in return volunteers know how privileged they are to live in Sussex County,” Giresi said.

Both children and the volunteers agree that the highlight of the program is being outdoors and in the water.

“I like to get to swim and getting out of the city,” said William, a fourth grade student.

Susan Loyas has volunteered for nine years, teaching the environmental program. Certificates were given to three children honoring them for their classroom academics and character.

Kemora, 9, received a good citizenship award.

“I got this for being kind and helping others in my classroom,” Kemora said.

“I am proud of all three of them, because they carry what they learn in the summer throughout the year. It’s truly a blessing to volunteer here, and we love all the kids,” Loyas said.

Local businesses and residents contributed to the backpack party celebration by donating money, backpacks and supplies.

Sparta Evangelical Free Church, where the event was held, raised over $2,400.

One hundred fourty-four new backpacks with age appropriate school supplies will go to schools in Newark. Tilly’s Kids also received new sneakers and socks to start the school year. Any additional money will go to winter boots, said Giresi.

“We look to do community outreach programs so we approached Pass It Along who got us involved with Tilly’s Kids,” said Jen Jones, member and volunteer of Sparta Evangelical Free Church. “We raised the money for the shoes through donations from kids at vacation bible school and members of our church.”

Maura Chozick, 16 and student at Lenape Valley High School, has been volunteering for the past three years.

“You learn how lucky you are and blessed,” said Chozick.

Christie Taylor, 23 and a volunteer for over 10 years, said she enjoys the experience.

“Just being a buddy is great," Taylor said. "They love the attention and positive feedback. It opens your eyes to a world you are not used to. Some of the kids I had when they were very young and now they are older.”

The smiles and reactions during the backpack handout was the end result of a successful summer program.

“I love my new light-up sneakers,” said four-year-old Melanie.

Omar Travis, 12, said he looks forward to returning.

“You get to meet new people and have fun,” he said.

The program continues throughout the year on a monthly basis.

For more information about Tilly’s Kids visit

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