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 The Force was strong at the Plumsted Library in Plumsted Township, Ocean County, on Dec. 16 when a celebration of all things “Star Wars” was held in conjunction with the opening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR The Force was strong at the Plumsted Library in Plumsted Township, Ocean County, on Dec. 16 when a celebration of all things “Star Wars” was held in conjunction with the opening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR

Foster children receive holiday cheer from Middlesex County residents

This holiday season, Middlesex County community members joined together to ensure some of the most vulnerable children in the county have a reason to celebrate.

Throughout November and December, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Middlesex County received donations of holiday gifts for the children they serve, all who live in foster care due to abuse or neglect.

The majority of the gifts came from Sayreville Middle School, which provided 66 overflowing bags of toys and games collected from kids, teachers and the Parent Teacher Association. Each gift was hand-selected based on the wishes of the recipient. They were all wrapped by the students in the Community Service Club.

Colette Scozzafava, a CASA staff member who delivered gifts to a family with seven children, indicated that delivering the gifts “is a really gratifying, positive experience” and that “some of the children don’t get holiday gifts except for the ones we bring.”

Avalon Bay Communities donated approximately 80 additional gifts that will be given to children to celebrate special occasions throughout the year.

CASA was also grateful to receive 35 bags full of gifts from the Highland Park Middle School to help children living in foster care celebrate their adoptions.

CASA hopes to partner with additional local organizations to provide gift cards to youth in foster care. The gift cards will serve as an incentive to encourage youth to attend the Adolescent Conference scheduled for the spring, which will help youth develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become independent adults.

For more information about CASA or its gift giving options, visit www.casaofmiddlesexcounty.org or contact Stephanie Brown at stephanie@casaofmiddlesexcounty.org or 732-246-4449, ext. 1.

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 Every year during the holiday season, Boy Scout Troop 14 participates in Scouting for Food, placing collection bags at residences in Metuchen neighborhoods and returning a week later to collect the contributions. The items are brought to St. Francis Cathedral and then donated to the Community Food Bank.  PHOTO COURTESY OF ANGELA R. TWIFORD Every year during the holiday season, Boy Scout Troop 14 participates in Scouting for Food, placing collection bags at residences in Metuchen neighborhoods and returning a week later to collect the contributions. The items are brought to St. Francis Cathedral and then donated to the Community Food Bank. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANGELA R. TWIFORD

Carriers should ensure delivery of packages

I have been hearing a lot in the news lately about missing packages from people’s front porches. The carriers who deliver the packages can solve this problem.

For example, as it is now, the delivery person sets the package on the front porch and rings the doorbell. The carrier does not wait to see if the customer is at home. Whatever happened to making sure the customer gets the shipment? There have been times when I was doing something upstairs and by the time I get downstairs the delivery person is in the truck already. In some cases, the customer may not be at home. Is it too much effort to go next door and leave the package with someone?

In conclusion, there is a solution to this problem and if the carriers (UPS, FedEx, DHL etc.) would finish doing the job by making sure the shipment actually gets into the customer’s hands then there would not be any problems.

Whatever happened to customer service?

Michael Hart North Brunswick

Meredith Baxter and her ‘Family Ties’ husband enjoy reunion as Christmas’ power couple

By Kellie Freeze, www.channelguidemag.com

In Lifetime’s holiday original movie Becoming Santa, Holly (Laura Bell Bundy) brings her boyfriend (Jesse Hutch) to meet her family and reveals that not only are her parents Santa and Mrs. Claus, but also whoever she marries will become the next Santa.

There’s no one better to play the quintessential holiday couple than Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross, who played TV’s perfect parents on Family Ties. Baxter offers a little secret about portraying Mrs. Claus. “She may be iconic, but no one knows what she really looks like!” The actress figures, “Whoever we say she is — that’s who she is!”

The actress reveals that she enjoys working on holiday films because of the strong family storylines, but the flick’s biggest draw was the opportunity to work with her good friend.

“As soon as I knew he was attached, I didn’t even bother reading the script,” she jokes.

“The interesting thing about this particular script,” muses Baxter, “is the idea that the women of the Claus family are the ones who determine who is the next Santa.” She adds, “As light as this film is, for my character there’s an undercurrent of, ‘OK, this is serious business.’”

Baxter reveals that her favorite off-set activity was reading, while Gross spent his time with his fans.

“It was very, very hot where we were shooting and Michael was wearing a big fat suit,” she recalls with a laugh. “We had a huge fan in the green room and while we weren’t working, he would just position himself in front of it. He was this large, lumpy personage, just trying to stay cool.”

As for if she remains in touch with her other Family Ties cast members, particularly her TV children, Baxter shares: “Not on a regular basis, no. That’s why I covet those times when we can get together, which is really so sweet to see them. They’re such good people and good parents. I love that we raised good children who are good parents.”

That’s the most common question she gets from fans, too. “They want to know how’s Michael Fox. They want to know if we see each other, we talk to each other. I often hear, ‘I wish you’d been my mother.’ That’s a woman who’s strong and loving and has the time to sit down and spend time with her kids the way many parents don’t have a chance to.

“The fact that all the characters seemed to have some longevity in people’s hearts and minds is just lovely. It’s rare I think that that happens, and when it does it’s really glorious. I think people liked our family because we liked each other so much.”

Lifetime airs an encore performance of Becoming Santa on Dec. 25 at 10 p.m.

Monroe, Woodbridge receive sustainable grant funding

The Monroe Township and Woodbridge school districts were among seven public school districts and seven municipalities selected to receive Sustainable Jersey grants funded by the Gardinier Environmental Fund.

Monroe received $10,000 for “Energizing our Future.” Six online learning modules on energy sources and energy use will be created. The modules will be shared at each of the district’s eight schools by green team members. The green team will also present hands-on activities related to sustainable energy to students at each grade level. The project will culminate with a Sustainable Energy Tell a Friend Contest, which will be open to all classes in grades K-8.

Woodbridge received $30,000 for a microgrid study. Township resiliency will be increased by connecting several facilities throughout the town to establish a microgrid, which is made of small energy systems comprising distributed generation and electrical infrastructure that runs parallel to traditional grids. The grant will be used to plan and implement preliminary steps to build a microgrid, including a broad range of data collection aimed at identifying categories of facilities that may require power during a blackout.

“Investments in local energy projects will help us make progress toward the goal of a more sustainable and resilient New Jersey,” said Randall Solomon, who co-directs Sustainable Jersey with Donna Drewes. “Congratulations to the forwardthinking school districts and municipalities that developed these projects.”

“The Gardinier Environmental Fund is committed to conserving the earth’s energy resources and enhancing renewable energy measures,” said Gene Wentzel, president of the Gardinier Environmental Fund. “We are proud to stand alongside Sustainable Jersey, and to continue to fund worthy projects that support our mutual goals in New Jersey.”

To date, the Gardinier Environmental Fund has provided $365,000 to the Sustainable Jersey Small Grants program.

You can go home again

Sisters lets two women we absolutely love bring their comic genius to the screen. Maura (Amy Poehler) and Kate Ellis (Tina Fey) are tasked with the responsibility of cleaning out their room at their childhood home as their parents are moving to a condo. But in rehashing the memories made there, the two decide there is only one thing to do: throw one last party with their old friends.

As the sisters dig through memories, we realize quickly that Maura has always played it safe, while free spirit Kate has always loved to party. Neither can wrap her head around why their parents want to get rid of this house, but both can agree on throwing the party.

So the sisters do all the prep and invite many of their old friends — who in no way resemble the pictures on Facebook or who they can remember them to be. They set out to be the perfect party hosts, only this time Maura gets to be the free spirit while Kate keeps everyone together.

Amy and Tina are funny. At times they are very funny as this is a raw comedy that doesn’t make any apologies. It is a pleasure seeing these amazingly talented women work and they tend to wow viewers with their quick wit and delivery.

The supporting characters, however, are a mixed bag. Some — Ike Barinholtz and John Cena in a bit role — made me laugh and enjoy the addition to the story. But roles for Bobby Moynihan and Maya Rudolph felt tired in Moynihan’s case and misguided and forced for Rudolph’s character.

The unevenness of the supporting characters does NOT take away from the fact that Amy and Tina — yes, I can just use their first names — are the real stars here. Together they are a breath of fresh air on the comic landscape with everything they do. These two sisters prove you can go home again — just be careful if you plan to throw a party there.

Sisters Rated: R Stars: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz Director: Jason Moore Grade: B

The Big Short Rated: R Stars: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling Director: Adam McKay

Adam McKay’s peek into the credit and housing bubble collapse shows an industry full of corruption, extravagance and the willingness to pull the wool over the eyes of the American public. A startling discovery by a number of seemingly ordinary individuals sets them up financially as they short the banks during the booming housing market of 2005.

Edison expands preschool program for children with special needs

By JACQUELINE DURETT Correspondent

EDISON — The township school district recently expanded its learning options for youngsters with special needs.

This year, the township launched two new sections of its half-day self-contained preschool disabilities (PSD) program. The new sections were needed to accommodate an increase of students in need of the program, according to Christopher Conklin, the district’s assistant superintendent for pupil-special services.

The new PSD sections are based at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School on Woodbridge Avenue, and build on the existing PSD sections at both the Edison Early Learning Center (EELC) on Boulevard of the Eagles and FDR Preschool (which also offers full-day versions) on New Dover Road.

“The district was facing a larger than anticipated PSD enrollment and had to open the classes to accommodate the new students,” explained Christopher Conklin, the district’s as- sistant superintendent for pupil-special services.

Because the EELC and FDR sections of PSD were full, the district received approval to expand the program at the October Board of Education meeting.

Placement in the PSD, Conklin said, is determined by factors such as need, location and space availability, as no section of the program can have more than 12 students. Each PSD section, he said, is taught by a certified special education teacher and is supported by a classroom paraprofessional. “If the enrollment of the class exceeds eight,” he said, “an additional paraprofessional is added to the class to support the program.”

By having an Edison-based program like this, Conklin said, students are able to access all of the resources the district offers, such as speech, language, occupational and physical therapies — and in an environment where their peers are also getting an education.

“By establishing the program in-district, students are able to be educated in the presence of typically developing peers while receiving specialized instruction, as well as, where applicable, related services,” Conklin said.

The township has steadily been increasing its resources for those with special needs across all age levels. Conklin said expanding the PSD is in alignment with the philosophy of the school district. “The creation of these new classes within the Edison Township Public School District confirms the district’s commitment to offering a continuum of supports and services within the least restrictive environment to meet each student’s individualized needs,” he said.

To learn more about what services are available to township students with special needs, visit the district’s website at www.edison. k12.nj.us, select Departments, and then Special Services.

Nat King Cole

By Ali Datko, ReMIND Magazine

Among the many joys of the holiday season are the classic, beloved songs that have been passed down from one generation to the next, bringing together listeners young and old. Among the most notable and nostalgia-provoking is the delightfully ubiquitous “The Christmas Song,” subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe (and the baritone voice of Nat King Cole) help to make the season bright.

Nathaniel Adams Coles was born on March 17, 1919. The son of a Baptist minister and a church organist, he was immersed in a musical lifestyle at a young age. By the age of 4, he was performing for his father’s congregation, and by age 12 he had begun classical piano lessons.

Although Nathaniel was born in Montgomery, Ala., he grew up in Chicago, where he was influenced by such club performers as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. In his mid-teens, driven to pursue a career in music, he dropped out of school to play full time.

He landed a gig with the nationally touring revue “Shuffle Along,” but faced a standstill in Long Beach, Calif., when the act floundered abruptly. In Long Beach, he formed the King Cole Trio (by that time, he’d adopted the nickname “Nat King Cole”), a jazz group that toured extensively throughout the late ’30s and early ’40s. In 1943, the trio signed with Capitol Records, with whom they released the breakout hits “That Ain’t Right” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”

In 1946, they recorded the now-classic tune “The Christmas Song.” Cole later recorded three alternate versions; the fourth, recorded in 1961, is the most famous and the one still played on the radio today.

Cole’s other popular hits included “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Unforgettable” (1951), “Love Is the Thing” (1957) and “L-O-V-E” (1965). During his wildly successful career, he also hosted NBC’s “The Nat King Cole Show” (the first African- American-hosted variety show), and appeared in numerous short films and sitcoms.

Cole married twice and raised five children, among them Grammy-winning artist Natalie Cole. He passed away in 1965 due to lung cancer, with wife Maria by his side. In 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, and in 2000 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.