(ABOVE) Crossbridge Community Church Pastor Jimmy Donaruma and Christiana Foundation namesake Christiana Rochelle at a previous year’s Night to Shine event.
Every year at this time it seems there is no shortage of annual festivals and family events on the docket; enough to keep everyone knee deep in freshly picked pumpkins and apple cider donuts well into the coming year.
But later this month there will be a fresh event on tap in our area, and it’s being put together by a new local organization with a noble cause in mind.
It’s called Fallfest and it will take place at Dream Park in Logan Township Saturday, Oct. 14 and Sunday, Oct. 15 and will benefit The Christiana Foundation.
“It’ll be a full day,” said Swedesboro resident and event coordinator Sean Gardner of each day’s offerings. “It’ll be an event where you can come and hang out for a bit.”
Gardner said you’ll find the typical fair contents at Fallfest, with over 50 arts and crafts vendors scheduled to attend, live music with three acts performing each day, food trucks, and beer and wine sold by Swedesboro Brewing Company and Salem Oak Vineyards respectively.
Gardner said admission to the event will be free and will include family fun activities like balloons and face painting for the kids, along with games and a magic show.
All pretty standard components for a typical fall festival, Gardner said.
But what’s not typical is the overall goal for the event and the reason for the existence of the organization behind it in the first place. “The Christiana Foundation was formed in an effort to financially support Night to Shine,” Gardner said of the newly formed nonprofit behind Fallfest.
Night to Shine is an annual event, created by the Tim Tebow Foundation, that creates a prom night experience for people with special needs.
“Night to Shine is a complimentary event for people with special needs hosted by local churches around the world. The event is open to anyone living with disabilities, ages 14 and older,” according to the event’s website.
And while the event may be complimentary for guests to attend, it can be quite a costly affair to pull together. That’s where Gardner, his Christiana Foundation and the Fallfest come into play.
Gardner, a lifelong Gloucester County resident, settled in Swedesboro about five years ago with his wife Christiana Rochelle, who’s originally from Maryland. It was through her that he first came to learn about Night to Shine.
“When I met my wife seven years ago, I started going to church with her,” Gardner said. He said that around that same time, the church, Crossbridge Community Church, was accepted as a host for a local Night to Shine event.
Gardner said his wife heads the committee that plans the event for the church each year. She explained the mission of the night each year.
“It is meant to be a night where every single one of our honored guests feels loved, and seen, and valued,” Rochelle said. “This night involves not only a team of individuals who spend all year committed to planning an extraordinary event, but also approximately 300 volunteers to make this a night that will never be forgotten.
“Not only do we want this to be a night where each guest is made to feel like the king or queen of the prom, but we also want each volunteer to celebrate the uniqueness, the differences, and the special talents of each and every one of our guests.”
Gardner said he was soon asked to volunteer as well, and the experience was eye-opening. He knew he had to get involved further. “When you see the event in person, you realize just how important it is,” Gardner said.
The size of its importance is matched by its price tag, as Gardner said the event can cost upwards of $50,000, which the church has to piece together through the funds in their own coffers and donations from sponsors.
That’s what gave Gardner the idea of trying to create Fallfest as a fundraising event and created the Christiana Foundation, named for his wife, as the organization to coordinate it. “I named our foundation after her for her dedication to working with individuals with special needs,” Gardner said.
His mission became to help the church in their effort to help serve the special needs community.
“They’re just a small church,” he said. “They don’t even have a building. They meet at Kingsway High School.”
Not having their own facilities has meant higher costs as they have to pay for venue rentals and food services, where larger churches and organization may have their own halls and even kitchens.
“This little church really has no business putting on a $50,000 event,” Gardner said with a laugh. “But guess what? They’ve been doing it every year. They find a way to get it done. There’s a lot of generous people throughout the church helping them get it done.”
Gardner’s half-joking assessment of the situation finds an unlikely person in agreement with him: Crossbridge Head Pastor Jimmy Donaruma.
“Our church is not big enough to pull it off,” Donaruma said with a chuckle. “It takes 300 volunteers from the entire region. There are so many people who don’t go to our church, as well as other churches, who partner with us, who say, ‘we’ll jump in and do it!’ It’s amazing.”
Donaruma applauded Gardner for taking on the job of running Fallfest “from soup to nuts” and attempting to turn it into a fundraiser for Night to Shine. “He’s continuing to have a dream of just creating an environment that’s great for the community to engage with and ultimately to raise money,” Donaruma said.
Donaruma said the success of the events each year is due entirely to the volunteer efforts of people like Sean and Christiana. “I have an amazing team here at the church that runs all of it,” he said. “I just get to show up and be the hype man and pastor.”
Donaruma said they didn’t quite know what to expect when they first got involved with Night to Shine. “When we initially started it, it was because the church had a surplus of money and instead of banking it, we decided to invest it in people,” he said. “We threw our first prom and realized quickly there was a need for it and went, ‘oh my gosh! Whoa, we should do this again!”
During their first couple of years with the event they moved from venue to venue as it outgrew the space from the year prior. This coming dance, in February of next year, will mark the second year in a row the event is held at Adventure Aquarium in Camden.
“We finally have a repeat venue, with the same room, the same flow,” Donaruma said. “We have seen just an amazing amount of guests come through. They know who we are. We know their names, and they can just dance the night away with the most amazing volunteers from the community. It’s amazing.”
Most of the dance attendees are not specifically members of the Crossbridge Church, the pastor said, but rather part of a larger network. “We have an amazing ministry to families with special needs,” he said. “The reach for this really comes from those families in our church who have an amazing network of families.
“There are a ton of families in this area with children with special needs. They’re just so overlooked.”
As the event grew, Donaruma said, so did the cost and the need to rely on sponsors to keep it going. “We have some amazing sponsors inside the church who give generously,” he said. “For the last four years we’ve had a philosophy, a calling if you will, that any money that’s raised that’s over our budget, we give away.”
As far as Donaruma is concerned, it is always money well spent. “When people experience the night itself, no one comes away going, ‘I don’t know if that was really worth it,’” he said. “Every one of them goes, and excuse my French, ‘what the hell did you guys just do? This is unbelievable!’”
Gardner believes in the mission behind Night to Shine so much that he’s hoping his efforts and Fallfest will mean that eventually the church won’t have to look for any additional sponsorship.
“We hope, eventually, as we grow this festival, that it will be one event that covers the whole entire bill,” Gardner said.
He said the hope is to have the event become self-sustaining by its third year, with the ultimate goal being to completely fund Night to Shine. “My goal, when I originally developed this plan and this idea, was hopefully over a five-year period I can get to a point where I’m raising the whole $50,000 on that weekend.”
With this being the first year for Fallfest, Gardner said they turned to another more established charitable foundation to get things rolling. “We were fortunate enough to receive a gift from another foundation of $25,000 that really catapulted us into being able to have the event and guarantee that it was going to happen for year one and year two,” he said.
Those startup funds for the event were granted by the Matthew P. Pellegrino II Memorial Foundation, Gardner said. “They do an annual golf outing, which is coming up Columbus Day weekend, in Riverton, and they give away money to people like us,” he said. “They were kind enough to see what we were doing, and say, ‘you know what, here’s $25,000, go do it.’”
Now the first Fallfest is almost here, and Gardner hopes folks in the area will be updating their festival calendars to come out and support a worthy cause. “I’ve been planning and preparing this for two years,” he said.
Along with vendor fees, Gardner said he’s on the lookout for additional revenue streams he can incorporate into Fallfest to reach his goal of fully funding Night to Shine sooner rather than later.
He said that while admission is free, they will be asking for donations at the door. “I don’t mean $50, $100,” Gardner said. “I’m talking about a dollar, two dollars, five dollars. We’re going to have a gift box there, and that’s totally voluntary.
“It’s just like, ‘hey, we’re providing all this stuff, if you can, help us out a little bit.’”
Gardner said that along with cash donations the organization will have a Venmo account set up for anyone who would like to give electronically.
“It’s going to be a family fun event with something for everybody; live music, beer and wine, arts and crafts,” he said.
Fallfest will take place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day Saturday, Oct. 14 and Sunday, Oct. 15 at Dream Park, 400 U.S. 130 in Logan Township. Admission is free and the event will be held rain or shine as it will be set up mainly indoors.
For more information visit https://fallfestdreampark.com
To see highlights from last year’s Night to Shine event, check out this video from Crossbridge Community Church on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtYZl2KIb2I&ab_channel=CrossbridgeCommunityChurch
PHOTO CAPTION: Crossbridge Community Church Pastor Jimmy Donaruma and Christiana Foundation namesake Christiana Rochelle at a previous year’s Night to Shine event.
By Joe D’Aquila