Annual Easter Basket Drive Kicks-off, Becomes Non-Profit Organization

By Tina Pappas

 

The annual Easter Basket Drive Initiative is in full swing, with one difference this year – the organization is now an official non-profit organization.  Maria Koukoularis, a former Woodland Park resident who now lives in Denville, began the drive in 1999. 

 

According to Koukoularis, the goal this year is to distribute 5,000 baskets, just like their record amount last year. 

 

“It was a lot of work but we managed to make all 5,000 baskets last year and we’d like to match that number again this year,” she said.

 

Koukoularis, is the founder/president of the drive and now the I A.M. Hope NJ – Abhay S. Mainkar Foundation, named for her brother-in-law who passed in 2010.

 

“He was the first person who offered to make a donation to this drive when I first started it, so it’s very befitting that I name this non-profit after him,” she explained.

 

According to Koukoularis, the mission is to change the lives of women and children by breaking the cycle of poverty through compassionate programs designed to provide Easter baskets, backpacks and scholarships to underprivileged children in the state. The Easter Basket Drive Initiative is now in its 23rd year. It was formally known as the Easter Basket Drive of Northern New Jersey.

 

“Everyone’s generosity goes towards changing lives,” she added. This year’s goal is to provide 5,000 baskets to homeless and underprivileged children across the state.” 

 

Koukoularis said 3,500 baskets were assembled in 2020 when the pandemic first hit, which was a huge accomplishment with help from her volunteers. They finished distributing the baskets the day before the unprecedented shutdown of establishments, like the Woodland Park Municipal Building, where the donation drop-offs and basket assembling took place inside the community room. She previously ran the drive out of her home for many years.

 

Last year, they brought the amount of Easter baskets to 5,000, where basket assembling took place at a storefront located in Denville. This year’s basket assembling will again be at that same location. 

 

In addition, senior citizens who have been in great need and have also reached out to the foundation for baskets.  

 

“We never turn away any organization, but need help from donors in order to fulfill every person’s hope for a little bit of love in a basket,” she further added. “Everyone’s generosity was amazing, including Woodland Park Mayor Keith Kazmark and council members who have year after year supported us with these Easter Baskets.”

 

Koukoularis said she is extremely proud of the help received from her daughter Julia, now 13, including help from her sister Eleni Koukoularis, who is also board secretary, and her longtime best friend Allyson Galinis, who is board treasurer. It also includes the countless volunteers who have assembled baskets over the years and helped to distribute them. 

 

“Julia has been helping show volunteers how to wrap baskets and she has become very involved in the whole process in general over the years. She also handles social media content with a friend,” she said.

“Her involvement from the time she could walk, and watching her grow within the foundation, is what gave me the idea to create a junior board.”

 

Besides establishing a board for the foundation, Koukoularis created a junior board that consists of middle school and high school students. She said she wants to offer kids and teens a great experience by becoming philanthropists and giving back to their communities. She also wants to offer an internship program where interns will learn an array of skills, such as doing Powerpoint presentations and learning how to build a website. She hopes to eventually provide scholarships through the foundation as well. 

 

 “I’m currently teaching my junior board president how to run a board meeting,” she added. “In order for someone to shadow an executive member, they have to be junior in high school. I have ten junior board members right now and also have a college student interning with me who will be receiving college credit.”

 

Koukoularis added that her organization is very environmentally conscious, by trying to use reusable tote bags as much as possible, aside from plastic baskets and buckets.

 

“We are also using biodegradable bags from stores like Five Below so we can save on using plastics, including wrap paper,” she said. “They are about 25 cents each so they’re economical as well.”

 

Additionally, her next big task will be grant writing. Even though she works full-time, she still finds the time for her initiative.

 

“I want to learn or get someone to do grant writing for my non-profit. This is my next project in order to bring it to the next level,” she noted. “It was a lot of hard work but we were finally able to create this non-profit.”

 

Koukoularis said that the iamhopenj.org website will ready soon.  The organization is also on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. The I A.M. Hope NJ email is iamhopenj@gmail.com. Drop off locations are at the Woodland Park Municipal Building, located at 5 Brophy Lane and the Alfred H. Baumann Public Library, located at 7 Brophy Lane. The Denville drop-off is located at  559 East Main Street in Denville (Dickerson’s corner). 

 

She also said she’s been thankful for all the support given to the Easter Basket Drive Initiative through the years and hopes it will continue.

 

“We’re grateful for everyone’s continued generosity and ask that you please show support to an area of the Abhay S. Mainkar Foundation that’s close to your heart today!” 

 

The donation drop-off deadline date is on April 10.

 

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