WATERBURY — Room after room, the routine was the same Dec. 22 at Wilson Elementary School.
Santa Claus — also known as Robert Birrell — charged in wearing his trademark red suit and flowing white beard. He was tailed by an entourage of smiling adults, some carrying great clusters of paper bags. Inside each bag was a fleece coat for each child.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!,” Birrell bellowed.
From preschool to fifth grade, excited children rushed to wrap arms around Santa. Birrell bantered with them. Had they been good? Had their teacher been good? Where was Rudolph?, child after child asks. Up on the roof, of course.
Usually standing near the door, or just outside, was Ed Mascolo, president of NEJ Inc., a Beacon Falls clothing distributor that has made a special cause out of helping the inner-city school. This was his fourth Christmas visit to Wilson Elementary.
“What’s Santa’s favorite three words?” Birrell asked class after class. “Let’s say it all together. One, two, three… HO! HO! HO!.”
Birrell is Mascolo’s top salesman, and enjoys seeing the children’s eyes light up.
“NEJ has just been so generous with this school every year,” kindergarten teacher Cara Richo said, as Santa and his helpers marched from her room. Richo said she has many children without proper winter clothing.
“It’s definitely a big help to the families,” she said.
NEJ has donated well in excess of $100,000 to Wilson in the past few years. The company gave tens-of-thousands of dollars to a special fund for extras, such as tools and teaching materials. There are goody bags at Halloween, gifts at Christmas. Last school year, the company paid to completely refurbish one room, right down to the flooring and electrical system. Then NEJ stocked the room with expensive furniture, computers and other technology.
Now, the company has committed to rehabbing the school’s gymnasium. There will be fresh paint on the walls, and scuffed wooden floors will be refinished.
There will be a new sound system and bleachers, new basketball backboards and safety padding for the walls, among other refinements. Mascolo estimates a cost of about $25,000. Work will begin over winter break. NEJ, like many companies, has taken a big hit during this recession. There have been painful layoffs and cost-cutting measures. But the company — which employs about 80 full-timers — will remain committed to Wilson, Mascolo said.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges, but I won’t let go of this,” he told Robin Henry, Wilson’s new principal, during a break from the festivities.
Mascolo stresses that all NEJ staff contribute. Staff conduct their own fundraisers, recently raising $2,400 to help pay for the gym backboards. Volunteers from among the staff help organize event after event, and even carted over gifts for the school’s 430 students.
Other staff volunteer their time to organize events like Wednesday’s visit.
Mascolo is hoping his company’s contribution will inspire others. He’s set up a nonprofit — the Mascolo Family and NEJ Foundation — so donors can get a tax break.
“We’re not big enough to make a huge difference,” he said. “But we can make a little difference, make the school a little better.
Hopefully people in the community will notice that and step forward.”