Photos: Halos for Angels volunteers prepare for this year’s Fright Factor event. Photos courtesy/Karen Casolaro.
By Anya Bochman
Although Halos for Angels, the non-profit charity from Florham Park, makes bringing out the charitable and compassionate nature in people its mission, this October the organization is focusing on something more ghoulish. Fright Factor, its annual Halloween scare-fest where guests can experience the haunted and otherworldly, is a month-long endeavor to keep the organization functioning and continuing to bring care to the community.
The primary purpose of Halos for Angels, Inc. is to “nurture its community’s well-being by extending to its family members temporary relief, comfort and support when sudden tragedy hits home.” Started in 2010 by Karen Casolaro of Florham Park, HFA assists families in need who experience a sudden tragedy or catastrophic event by providing support with day-to-day responsibilities such as transportation services, shopping trips, child care or daily meals – until those affected reach recovery or are able to support themselves. To date, Halos For Angels has served more than 120 families.
Casolaro grew up in West Orange, where she met and married her husband and raised five children. Upon moving to Florham Park in 1997, she became actively involved with community organizations, serving as the chair of the Florham Park Municipal Alliance, being a Brownie Troop Leader and Class Mother, and volunteering with the PTA. She has also served as a Eucharistic Minister and taught CCD education at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church for a number of years.
In 2008, the path of Casolaro’s life was drastically altered when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she struggled to recover through additional testing, biopsies and a double mastectomy in 2009, she was struck by the enormous support she received not only from her family and friends, but also the community at large. People that Casolaro had never met would arrive daily at her home to bring food, as well as offer compassion and understanding to her and her family. It was during this time that she saw the significance of community support in the midst of sudden tragedy, and decided to “give back” to others in need through the establishment of HFA.
“Everything we do at HFA involves helping the community,” said Casolaro. “It gives us added strength and in turn allows us to help others – making a full ‘halo’.”
The non-profit achieves its charitable endeavors through a variety of fundraising sources, such as its Annual Gala and Fright Factor. The latter, an event which lasts throughout the entire month of October, consists of a series of weekend festivities for all ages, centered on its main attraction of a haunted house.
Fright Factor began on Saturday, Oct. 6, at 186 Ridgedale Ave in Florham Park at 3 p.m. The entrance fee is $10, and attendees have the option of an afternoon “kid friendly” program, or the “Massive Scare” event, which follows later that night.
“The kid program is more like a festival, with tours, goody bags, candy and face-painting,” Casolaro said, adding that she could not reveal the theme of the “Massive Scare.” “It’s mysterious, but I’m sure the crowd will be very much excited by it.”
Now in its sixth year, the Fright Factor structure was originally built by Casolaro’s architect husband, John.
“After the first year, we realized that the potential for generating funds to help families could be greater,” she said. “Every year [since then], John has added to the design and we collaborated on decorating it. It is now 3,000 square feet, and we try to change it every year to keep the mystery for our repeat supporters.”
The doors to Fright Factor are open to the community, and this year, officers from the Florham Park police department, sheriff’s office and department of corrections will serve as actor “ghouls” to bring scares and excitement to attendees. Additionally, there will be a Fright Factor bake off on Oct. 20, an event that calls for participants to create an “edible masterpiece” for a chance to win $500. A Monster Mask Off will follow on Oct. 27; the challenge will involve transforming a live model into a “monster” using face paint and various accessories. The entrance fee for both events is $25, with proceeds serving to benefit HFA’s cause.
“The success of the events through the participation of the community is crucial to HFA’s continued existence and mission,” Casolaro said. “We are continuing to serve families with meals and helping them out with finances and medical care.”
During Fright Factor, HFA also engages local students by having their principals hide inside the structure. The school team that is first to locate its principal receives a prize and another free entrance to Fright Factor.
“We are all about community involvement, which is really crucial to our support,” Casolaro stated.
The recipients of HFA’s aid throughout the years come from various backgrounds, with the unifying factor being a sudden tragedy striking their families. Matthew Geisser, of East Hanover, was in his early 20s when he was diagnosed with knee cancer and forced to leave college in order to undergo treatment. Geisser had an owed balance of $5,800 for private housing at school; HFA negotiated with the housing company to underwrite his balance, while providing a charitable tax write off.
Additionally, the non-profit supplied Geisser and his family with meals for one year, as the college student underwent surgery and treatment. Through the help of HFA professionals in the medical field, the organization was able to offer family therapy, massage, Reiki therapy, prayer blankets and shawls, along with the invaluable emotional support and comfort. Incredibly, HFA reached out to the community in order to raise more than $27,000 to help cover Geisser’s medical bills when his surgeon would not accept his insurance.
To mitigate the hardship and stresses of treatment, HFA also fundraised for a stretch limo to take Geisser and his friends to a Jets football game, where they enjoyed a meet and greet with the players afterwards. Geisser is currently in remission from his cancer, and attending college again.
Kristin Curcio of Chatham was a 38-year-old mother of a toddler and a newborn baby when she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Desperate for help in navigating her diagnosis and treatment, Curcio came across HFA’s website.
After the mother of two had exhausted all treatment options in local facilities, HFA raised funds to send her to New York Sloan Kettering, as her insurance did not cover out-of-state medical institutes. After an evaluation, she was earmarked for a trial treatment which succeeded in putting her into remission. She was also provided with childcare, meals, clothing for her children and hotel stays for her husband while she was undergoing treatment in New York.
The theme of insurance problems is a sadly recurring one for families assisted by HFA. Some encounter obstacles to receiving a higher level of care or continued treatment; others need assistance from professionals in navigating the bureaucracies of health care coverage.
“A lot of the people we help don’t have insurance and need financial support for better treatment, or help from our volunteers who are professionals in the medical field,” Casolaro said.
In 2016, Halos For Angels came into contact with Nuno Pereirro, a businessman from East Hanover whose life had taken an unexpected and devastating turn. During a routine business trip, Pereirro misjudged the depth of a hotel swimming pool, hitting its side head-first as he dove in. The injury left him a quadriplegic, altering not only the course of his own life but that of his family.
“If one person is struck, everyone in the family suffers,” Casolaro said. “We try to help for the greater good, and it’s a wonderful thing.”
HFA was called in to assist from the outset; according to Pereirro, the organization advocated for him to receive more rehabilitation therapy after the Kessler Institute decided to send him home. Additionally, the non-profit supplied the family with meals for an entire year, and helped send their two young children to camp so that they could sustain some sense of normalcy.
However, Pereirro still remained without appropriate transportation. Using donations from last year’s Fright Factor and Christmas Tour fundraiser, HFA raised the funds necessary in order to purchase a van transformed for disability use. Obtained through an estate sale, the vehicle cost $18,000.
Pereirro, who described receiving the van as a “total surprise,” was immensely relieved not to have to rely on publicly available disability transportation any longer.
The fundraising goal for this year’s Fright Factor is $20,000, a sum that Casolaro states would enable the organization to continue providing support to its families. Some of the obstacles, as she sees it, are visibility for the non-profit.
“We try to get into religious parishes and other organizations to let them know we exist,” Casolaro commented. “We are all volunteers and we need support; without awareness, how are we going to help the next family?”
She went on to explain that the local news is a great outlet for spreading awareness of HFA.
“You usually only hear about the bad stuff [on the news],” she said. “We need to hear about the angels out here – great people who make a true difference. That’s why I found it so necessary to start a charity like this – to encourage the kindness of others.”