WOODLAND PARK/DENVILLE, NJ – The annual Easter Basket Drive Initiative has begun with the goal of distributing 5,000 baskets for the third year in a row.
Maria Koukoularis, founder and president of the drive, and the “I AM Hope NJ – Abhay S. Mainkar Foundation,” said its mission is to change the lives of women and children by breaking the cycle of poverty through compassionate program designed to provide Easter baskets, backpacks and scholarships to underprivileged children in the state.
Formerly known as the Easter Basket Drive of Northern New Jersey, the Easter Basket Drive Initiative is now in its 24th year. Koukoularis, a former Woodland Park resident who now lives in Denville, started driving in 1999.
Although it was a lot of work, he and his team were determined to reach 5,000 baskets again, a far cry from assembling baskets in his brother’s basement the first year they started. This year’s basket assembling will once again take place at Dickerson’s Corner in Denville.
“We want to match that number again this year,” he said. “We will make baskets every day from March 1 to April 8.”
The foundation is named for his brother-in-law Abhay Mainkar, who passed away in 2010.
“We do this every year in memory of my brother-in-law and he was the first person who offered to donate to this drive when I first started it,” she explained. “He was an inspirational man who always instilled hope and love in everyone, so it’s befitting that I named this non-profit after him.”
Koukoularis said she is very grateful and proud of the help provided by her “hands-on” 14-year-old daughter Julia, as well as her sister Eleni, who is the board secretary. Her close friend Allyson Galinis is also board treasurer. She also thanks the countless volunteers who have helped collect donations, assemble the baskets over the years, and help distribute them. There is also a junior board where Koukoularis and other members of the executive board mentor young people.
“Julia is junior board secretary now. Her involvement in this drive at a young age is what gave me the idea to create a junior board,” he said. “The whole junior board gets a bunch of functions and they all take part in shadowing the executives. I want to offer children and young people a good experience by being philanthropists and giving back to their communities.”
One of the things Koukoularis still needs is a grant writer.
“This is what I do, although I teach myself,” she quipped.
He also emphasized that his organization still prioritizes being Earth-friendly by trying to use reusable tote bags whenever possible, aside from donated plastic baskets and buckets.
“We still use biodegradable bags from stores like Five Below to save on the use of plastic and wrapping paper whenever possible,” she noted. “They run about 25 cents a piece so they’re budget-friendly too.”
Additionally, Koukoularis said the foundation received its raffle license and is now preparing to host a casino night at Hanover Manor, located in East Hanover, sometime this fall.
“We are starting to look for donations and we will also be looking for special guests to make appearances,” he added. “This will be our annual event and it’s exciting.”
This year, bunny grams are also being sold to raise funds. Several businesses in Woodland Park and Denville, will be selling them.
“A flier for the bunny gram has a QR Code and then the person’s name goes on the wall,” Koukoularis said, adding that anyone who wants to buy a bunny gram can go to the website, iamhopenj.org, or send an email to Koukoularis at email@example.com.
Anyone who wants to donate to the drive or help make baskets to visit the website, iamhopenj.org. Sign ups are on the website to help make baskets.
The organization is also on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. Drop-off locations for this year’s donated items, such as buckets, candy, reusable shopping bags, toys, crayons, coloring books, and chocolate bunnies, are at the Woodland Park Municipal Building, located at 5 Brophy Lane and at the Alfred H, Baumann Public Library, located at 7 Brophy Lane. A Denville drop-off location is also available, located at 559 East Main Street in Denville (Dickerson’s corner).
For questions about this year’s drive, please contact Koukoularis via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donation checks can also be made payable to “I AM Hope NJ” and sent to the Borough of Woodland Park – Recreation Department.
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