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Holiday Party in Whitesboro Lifts Children’s Spirits with Dance, Food, Gifts and Kindness

Collin Hall
Children gather in front of the presents that are given away at the end of the annual Christmas party put on by Hamer’s School of Karate. From left: Sincere, Jayvan, Luke, Joseph and Austin.

By Collin Hall

WHITESBORO – For some Whitesboro children, the annual Christmas party at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center is the only holiday celebration they will attend all year. So says Burgess “Butch” Hamer, the founder of the Hamer Karate School, which put on its 27th annual Christmas party on Saturday, Dec. 16, with presents for every child, a free lunch, a dance competition, nail painting, a temporary-tattoo station and a chance to meet new friends.

The event began in 1996 when Hamer noticed that many of the children at his karate school had difficult home lives and might not have pleasant memories associated with the winter holidays. That first party, at the then-Wildwood Golf & Country Club, was a huge success; 25 children showed up. But Sandra Hamer, Butch’s cousin, said that more recent parties have attracted up to 100 children.

Sandra has volunteered at the party – welcoming children, corralling their wild energy, coordinating the logistics of food and drink – for 25 years. Kelli Laboy, another longtime volunteer, said that she loves meeting new children every year. “It’s like we are family,” she said.

During the party, kids ate McDonald’s, donated by the location in Court House. Children also danced in the MLK center’s gymnasium, where a local DJ spun holiday songs.

“Oh man, do these kids love to dance,” said Tina Hengstler, a volunteer for over 20 years and Mrs. Claus for the sake of the party. “It just makes them feel so good and free.”

Hengstler said that “if you can pull these kids into something like the Christmas party, or a discipline like karate, it shows them that there is more to life. It gives them a sense of purpose. Sometimes they have nothing good to do, and if you don’t give kids structures and avenues to get out there, then they get pulled into the wrong things in life.”

She remembers an especially strong bond she formed with a brother and sister at a party many years ago. The girl was gifted a dress, and she insisted on putting it on before she even left the party. “She told me she had never owned anything so beautiful,” Hengstler said.

The siblings did not return for the next year’s party. The two were taken out of their homes and put into foster care in the year between. But the volunteers at Hamer’s School of Karate found their new address and made a special home delivery.

“We wanted them to feel like somebody cares about them. We didn’t know if that was going to be the only present they get,” Hengstler said.

The parties vary in format from year to year. One year, children were lifted high via the bucket on a Middle Township fire truck. When rail lines were still active across the county, Hamer and company would take the children onto passenger lines as part of the celebration.

“Most of those kids had never been on a train before,” he said.

Diane Hamer, Butch’s wife, painted children’s nails with fun holiday designs at this year’s party. She has been a professional nail stylist for most of her life and said that it is a joy to “help make little girls feel pretty, to help them lift their spirits.”

All of the volunteers interviewed by the Herald said the party helps boost the self-esteem of children who have home lives that make them feel small.

Butch Hamer said that he wants to “help make kids feel like they are somebody valuable. Some kids don’t know who they are because they have nothing. When you have something, when you do something special for a day – play around, dance, leave with a full stomach and a couple of toys, that changes the way they see the world.”

He said that the young children who attend the party are the next generation of Cape May County leaders. “Maybe one day a president will come out of here, you never know,” he said. “And when they are in power, no matter where, these kids will do way more good than we ever have.”

Contact the author, Collin Hall, at chall@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 156.

Content Marketing Coordinator / Reporter

Collin Hall grew up in Cape May County and works as a content manager for Do The Shore, as well as a reporter. He currently lives in Villas.

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