By any measure, 284 hand-crafted baskets, filled with goodies and lovingly assembled by volunteers, is a miracle of planning and dedication.
But these baskets, auctioned off at the annual St. James Spring Fundraiser, represented more than just a chance to win some nifty stuff and a fun Friday night out for school staff, students, and family. The event, the largest moneymaker the Catholic school holds all year, is the apex of a year's worth of organization led by Debra LaTour, the event chairman who has been leading the effort for the past five years.
"We start planning for next year's auction tomorrow," said Joanne Golden, a member of the Organizing Committee who helps LaTour. Last year's auction brought in over $20,000, and preliminary estimates hold that this year's event will be at least as successful.
It has to be. All of the money from the fundraiser held at McCorristin Hall goes straight to the business of education at St. James, and it's sorely needed. Mary Erath, principal of the school, emphasized how important the funds are in financing a quality education for the children.
"The money goes into our operating budget for materials, textbooks, supplies, the library, and computers," said Erath.
While the money goes into building a solid curriculum for the school's students, the efforts of the volunteers shine through the auction. "The school is so blessed to have volunteers that are so devoted to St. James. They help to cultivate the school as the family that it is," Erath said.
Golden, whose daughter graduated 8th grade at St. James two years ago, is still actively involved in the fundraiser. Parents of the St. James' students play a large role in helping to coordinate and organize for the event. They know and understand the impact their involvement can have on their child's education.
Parents gets involved in a different ways. Since preparation for the auction goes on the entire year, one parent who manages Treasure Island Storage donates storage space for all of the items that come in. Gail Waisalewski, a co-chairman of the effort, is responsible for soliciting 90 percent of the donated items for the auction.
And LaTour, who has two children at St. James, takes off from work a week before the auction, because the preparations needed her undivided attention.
"We literally lived in this room for the past few days," Golden said.
The students also get involved in the auction through the school. Each class has to fashion a "class basket" which displays their creativity while presenting a lucky raffle winner with the prize. Seventh and eighth grade students can count their involvement in helping to put together the baskets and the event toward their Confirmation volunteer hours.
Karen Murawski pointed with pride to her daughter Amanda and husband Steve who helped make a large, free-standing 'Pirates of the Caribbean' battleship entirely out of cardboard. "We try to be different every year. We play ideas back and forth and then decide on a theme for which we could find material online," she said.
Father Charlie Cicerale has been head of St. James for the past nine years, and he's an expert on the modern day finances of running the parish. The school has the largest sports program in Middlesex County and gave out over $100,000 in academic scholarships last year, said Father Cicerale.
"The parents and volunteers work really hard, all of the work beforehand makes this so successful," he said. "Their goodness keeps the school alive. Tuition can't do it alone."
There was a cup next to each uniquely crafted basket in which hopeful bidders could put their raffle ticket inside. One raffle ticket was picked from each cup to name the lucky winner of the basket or gift set. Aside from the 284 tricky tray baskets, this year's offerings included 38 gift certificate baskets, 9 class baskets, 9 food baskets, 10 grand prize baskets, a 50/50, and lottery baskets.
"Every year, even the regulars don't know what to expect when they walk through the door on auction night," said Father Cicerale.
Allison Schon, an auctioneer at the event, waited eagerly for raffle tickets to be drawn for the prizes she had her eye on. She put her raffle tickets in the cups designated for the 32" high definition flat-screen television, and for four tickets to Disney.
"I really hope I win. I need a TV," said Schon.