Joke among friends turns into vision for a cause

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    What began as an inside joke turned class project for three friends studying at Kean University. ultimately grew into a charity with a mission to show the way for a community-to-community nonprofit run by the same three friends with 100 percent of the proceeds going to charity.

    THE START OF JF PARTY DRAGON

    Thomas Nuara, CEO and president of JF Party Dragon, shared that it all leads back to a day spent on the boardwalk when one partner, Josh Avilleira, was moping around after a breakup and won a dragon stuffed animal. As leader of a group project, when Nuara couldn’t make a meeting he found himself easily replaced by that stuffed animal.

    “I couldn’t make the project one day and he [Josh] said, ‘No problem, we have your replacement here …’ and he sent me a picture of the stuffed dragib. Next day it’s in my chair. Next day he brings it to the restaurant at Shut Up and Eat! where I work…,” shared Nuara.

    This segued into the group bringing the stuffed dragon on a trip to Cleveland for Nuara’s 40th birthday and the jokes continued when they created an Instagram page built around the stuffed dragon and its travels. They continued to take random, fun photos of the stuffed animal.

    When Nuara and Avilleira had to create a sports team for a sports marketing class it seemed like a natural fit to use the dragon as a mascot since they already had a social media page dedicated to it. They also had T-shirts made up and after receiving a positive response on the shirts, they started selling them to put the profit toward a well-known relay race fundraiser.

    The pair raised $6,600 and when they got to the relay and were given 66 T-shirts, one for every $100 they raised, their questions began to arise. After conducting research and coming to the conclusion that some charities may not have been appropriating the funds in the most effective way possible, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

    “We did this for cancer research,” said Nuara. “So we said, ‘hey listen, we have a little bit of a following on Instagram. We have a little fund. Let’s do something else on our own. We don’t need to donate to big charities.’ ”

    The core of the charity continues to be those same three friends from Kean University. In addition to Nuara, Avilleira would be the vice president and Justin Greco is the CFO and treasurer.

    THE CHARITY’S TRANSFORMATION

    According to Nuara, they started their own charity thing that summer and decided to do a book bag drive. “The first year we raised enough money to fill 183 bookbags, which we distributed to the Toms River School District,” he shared.

    “So we were so excited we did this. We kept using the stuffed animal as our mascot. People would come in and take pictures with it at Shut Up and Eat!”

    Not sure what to fundraise for next, they wound up taking part in a fundraiser their school was running, which was a women’s jean drive for a battered women’s shelter that September. According to Nuara, they were unsure what to fundraise for in October so the friends ran a towel and blanket drive for an animal shelter.

    November and December proved easier as they ran a food drive followed by a toy drive. A drive to benefit an autism charity marked the calendar for March and April of that first year.

    “So as we started to grow we said, you know what with all this money coming in we need to get legal,” said Nuara. “So we then turned around, we got our 501[c]3, we are incorporated.

    “We actually then turned around and instead of using that stuffed animal that we originally had we transformed and created our own stuffed animal, for which we had a design made for us and then we turned that design into our own stuffed animal and had it mass produced. We had our own clothing line. We now have hats, bags and we actually sell the stuffed animals.”

    Nuara shared that the biggest key for the charity is that they don’t take a salary or compensation.”When we tell you we’re raising funds for autism, the money goes to where it said it’s going, it does not go in our pockets,” he added.

    In January, the charity colors Valentine cards for the elderly and during the week of Valentine’s Day they deliver the cards to adult community homes and those who don’t have anyone. From Valentine’s Day to the end of April it’s all about autism and May is dedicated to breast cancer followed by prostate cancer in June.

    According to Nuara, the charity has also partnered with Daruma Tattoo on Fisher Boulevard in Toms River.

    “So they open up their shop on a Sunday in October and they donate 100 percent of the money that comes into the tattoo place to our charity and we split that money half with families with cancer, we buy their Thanksgiving dinners and deliver them,” he explained.

    “We give them all of their dry goods and a $100 gift card to Shoprite so they can buy their perishables. And then we take the other half and buy toys for sick children for Christmas.”

    Nuara also shared his excitement for the charity’s latest partnership. “The Lakewood BlueClaws have chosen us as one of their community partners … We will be on their website, we will be in every one of their programs, we will have a plaque on their wall and we will have a game where we are the charity of choice, where we will get to hangout and talk to people about our charity in the stadium,” he said.

    Shut Up and Eat! in Toms River plays a large part in the success of the charity. “Without having the restaurant Shut Up and Eat! as a homebase for this dragon and for this charity, we would never be able to help the amount of people that we help,” said Nuara.

    COMEDY FOR A CAUSE

    “The charity decided to host comedy shows as another way for people to donate. So we do what we call Comedy for a Cause, that’s like our tagline,” said Nuara. “We actually have four shows in April coming up for different things.”

    All four April shows will be held at Shut Up and Eat!, 804 Main St., Toms River, which is also where people can purchase all of the charity’s merchandise.

    The first show of the month will kick off with an autism fundraiser on Thursday, April 4, featuring Buddy Fitzpatrick. On Thursday April 11, there will be two shows featuring Julia Scotty at 5 and at 8 p.m. also dedicated to autism.

    “On Thursday, April 25, the final show of the month will feature Vinnie Brand, owner of the Stress Factory, that will be a fundraiser for breast cancer. The comedy we started about a year ago,” he said. “This will be our sixth, seventh and eighth in April. They’re a big hit. It’s dinner and a show so our ticket prices include dinner, dessert, salad, fruit salad and a show.”

    JF Party Dragon Charity also has comedy shows slated for July and October. A July 17 show will feature Jim Florentine as a back-to-school fundraiser and the Oct. 17 show will feature Brad Williams for their Toy Drive through the Sheriff’s Department of Ocean County.

    “We want to grow this so that we can do this monthly with enough people that do this because the more money that we can raise, the more people we can actually help,” said Nuara. “And the reason that the three of us do this is we just want community to help community, people to help people.

    “If more people step up and help each other then the world can actually become a better place. It doesn’t have to be what it is and that’s the reason why we do it.”