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  • Writer's pictureThe Hammonton Gazette

Shop and donate locally this Christmas season

Courtesy Photo - Bagliani's Market Hammonton N.J.

When you read the Cape May Seashore Lines ad for The Santa Express on page 19 in this week’s newspaper, you’ll see a listing of local advertisers in the “Shop Locally” campaign sponsored by The Gazette and Cape May Seashore Lines. The goal of this annual ad campaign is to encourage people to shop locally with our advertisers—and at all local businesses in Hammonton and the surrounding area.

It’s been a huge success, thanks to your support. You have a made a positive difference with your dollars locally, including during some of the most difficult years we’ve ever seen economically.

Shoppers like you are joined with volunteers who donate their time and charitable people who donate their dollars to churches, clubs, schools, institutions and a lengthy list of causes all year long—and especially during Christmastime and the holiday season.

Saying “thank you” to all of you doesn’t seem like enough.

All of this shopping and giving brought back the strongest memory of Christmas 25 years ago in Hammonton. You may not believe it, but back then, after Whitehall had just closed and with about 70 percent vacancies downtown (and a growing list of vacancies uptown on the White Horse Pike), the prospects for Hammonton looked bleak.

Thanks to the generosity of the landlords and a small group of committed volunteers, empty storefront after empty storefront were suddenly decorated with kitschy plastic light-up snowmen, Santas and penguins and window after window was strung with lights.

I was thinking of the power of volunteerism on Thanksgiving morning, when I saw Mario Lopez coming down 6th Avenue in New York City during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, sitting atop the famed “Tom Turkey” float with his daughter by his side. I smiled to myself when I thought back to Lopez’s visit to Hammonton in 2003.

The MainStreet Hammonton Firemen’s Christmas Parade (now the Hammonton Fire Department’s Christmas Parade) was begun in 1998, chaired by Gazette Editor-in-Chief Gina Rullo. The parade was staged on Liberty Street, wound through the residential portion of Bellevue Avenue and into the downtown area. It was a total volunteer effort, just as it is today.

In 2003, the parade turned six, and while its previous grand marshals were special (Barry Williams— “Greg Brady” of “The Brady Bunch” showed up one year and put on a show at the then-Hammonton High School auditorium one year because the parade was rained out),

something extra special was being discussed to bring out a big crowd for the 2003 parade.

This time, the celebrity grand marshal was going to be bigger than ever.

I suggested Don Knotts of TV’s “The Andy Griffith Show.” What? I figured we could play up the whole “Mayberry” small-town angle. In my defense, even today, if you turn on Me TV any night of the week at 8 p.m. you’ll see Don Knotts standing right next to Andy.

My idea was scrubbed for Gina’s much better and timelier idea of bringing in Mario Lopez, then known mostly for his role as “A.C. Slater” in TV’s “Saved by the Bell” and also for “Animal Planet.”

He was driven down Bellevue Avenue in a classic convertible, and he couldn’t have been a better or more gracious grand marshal. When the bulk of the crowd began to see him as his car reached the intersection of Bellevue Avenue and Third Street, the screaming sounded like those old movies of girls screaming at the Beatles. I’m not kidding. It was mass hysteria downtown when Lopez arrived.

For his part, Lopez was classy when he addressed the crowd after stopping in front of the judge’s stand at the corner of Bellevue and Central Avenues.

“I want to wish everyone in Hammonton a Merry Christmas. This is a great town, and the people are so friendly. I had some great Italian food at Illiano’s, and the people of Hammonton have been just great … We had broccoli rabe for the first time ever at Illiano’s and it was out-of-this-world. I had no idea what broccoli rabe was until I got to Hammonton,” Lopez said to cheers from the people lining the streets.

Lopez’s “Saved by the Bell” castmate, the late Dustin Diamond, who played “Screech” in the show was also in the parade. He said he enjoyed Hammonton and the mini reunion of the hit ‘80s show. During an autograph session at Hammonton Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1 that drew hundreds, the two stars applauded a group of young people who showed up with guitars to play an impromptu acoustic version of the “Saved by the Bell” theme song.

“The people here really made me feel welcome,” Diamond said in 2003.

Thanks to the help of volunteers and donors, the parade was an outstanding success.

Decades ago, a small group of volunteers associated with MainStreet Hammonton decided to fuel people’s interest in shopping and donating locally by doing so themselves. Decades later, the “Shop Locally” and “Donate Locally” movement has made a positive impact throughout town in practically every aspect of the community.

People believe in Hammonton now—the results of an effort by volunteers who cared, and continue to care, enough to make a difference. And guess what the best part is?

They’re having a good time doing it.

Gabriel J. Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.


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