Originally Published at Asbury Park Press by Jennifer Bradshaw
The family of Staff Sgt. Dane Knighton take him everywhere they go.
Knighton, the father of five children, goes with them to graduation parties, sporting events and beach visits. His wife, Erin, is careful to make sure he does not miss any important events in their children's lives.
Knighton, of Vernon, might appear a bit stiff during these outings. It's because his likeness is emblazoned on a foam cutout that Erin carries around with her.
Knighton, serving at Camp Bucca in Iraq, is scheduled to return this summer. Erin carries the cutout around so he is always included in their time as a family.
Erin also takes pictures of the cutout at all the outings and posts them on a MySpace page so her husband can see where his likeness has been lately.
"He loves it," Erin said.
The Knighton family is just one of the families of nearly 2,900 New Jersey National Guard members deployed overseas.
From noon to 2 p.m. Sunday, nearly 780 of those family members came together at Convention Hall for the 16th annual holiday party thrown especially for them by local nonprofit Holiday Express.
Founder Tim McLoone, a former National Guard mechanic himself, said that the group is dedicated to bringing holiday cheer to people who do not have as much time or money to enjoy the holiday as others.
"We always wanted to do something for the military," McLoone said of the event's beginnings nearly two decades ago.
Once they found out that a large percentage of the families of servicemen and women live below the poverty line, the group jumped into action, he said.
Marie Darling, of the State Family Programs Office in Lawrence, said that Holiday Express picked up all costs of the party; the office only had to provide busing for the families to get to the party, picking them up from six different armories throughout the state.
Darling said the party was advertised through fliers, e-mails and group meetings.
"It's our way to help them through the holiday season," she said.
Attendees were treated to a holiday show of local musicians and dancers, backed by Holiday Express.
Volunteers ran craft and face-painting tables for children, and Jersey Mike's Subs donated enough sandwiches and chips for 1,400 people, founder Peter Cancro said.
"We started (making sandwiches) at 4 a.m. at one of our locations in Point Pleasant," he said.
Along with the Holiday Express volunteers, several New Jersey natives stopped by to visit.
Christie Rampone, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist and a Point Pleasant native, hung around at the party, displaying her medal and taking pictures with attendees.
Rampone, 33, said she decided to "join in on the fun" after hearing about the event from a friend who is involved with Holiday Express.
"It's all about sharing the medal," Rampone said. "And it's so close to home."
Gov. Jon S. Corzine also spent time at the event, talking and taking pictures with family members before addressing the crowd.
"There is not anything more important than saying "thank you' to the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us," he said.
Aside from being an event for families to spend an afternoon at, the event has an underlying message of hope, said Army Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Daugherty of the state Department of Military and Veteran's Affairs.
"What's great about it is that around the holiday season . . . it's a reminder that there is still good out there," he said.
Jennifer Bradshaw: (732) 888-2621 or email@example.com
Peter Cancro \"sandwiched\" between sub-makers Evan Mayer and John Cancro.
Volunteers from the Manasquan, NJ Home Office at Holiday Express Event Sunday, December 7, 2008.
Sara Logan with Amanda Eldredge setting-up at Holiday Express Event.