Giving to Children throughout South Jersey

personal tragedy that began for Saverio “Sam” Lacroce and his family more than four decades ago has evolved into a charitable organization that each year brightens the lives of thousands of hospitalized children throughout South Jersey.

Carz N’ Toyz: Driven to Care for Kids, was founded in 2011 by Lacroce, board president, and three fellow car enthusiasts: Bob Paglione, Ray Giannantonio and Dominic D’Auria.

All donations and philanthropic endeavors, explains Lacroce, are in memory of his late son, Saverio Joseph Lacroce, who lost his battle with leukemia at age 12 in August 1975.

On October 20, at the group’s 6th annual Charity Dinner and Auction at Tavistock Country Club in Haddonfield, NJ—that drew 200 supporters and raised over $85,000—the non-profit’s name was officially changed to the Joseph Lacroce Foundation.

Lacroce, 76, of Haddonfield, recalls the organization’s early days. In the summer of 2011, Bob Paglione, board vice president and former treasurer, called Lacroce and shared his idea to combine their passion for cars with some type of community service. “’As long as we do it in memory of my son,’” replied Lacroce, who had thought about such an effort for quite some time. Yet, taking care of a large family and building successful businesses had long been a major priority.

But the time seemed right and Lacroce and his friends took on the challenge full throttle. Describing himself as a doer, Lacroce says that when he sets his mind to something, it will be achieved. Paglione, 73, of Moorestown, NJ, who has known Lacroce for 30 years, is not surprised that the foundation has grown immensely since its inception.

In December 2011, the group’s goal was to collect 200 toys to be delivered to children at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees for the holidays. “I didn’t know how we would collect that many toys,” recalled Lacroce. Yet the dedicated team of four surpassed their aim and collected 800. Today, the foundation delivers about 1,500 to 2,000 toys each year during a December Toy Run.

The car enthusiasts meet in the morning at Caffe Aldo Lamberti on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, NJ. This year, the event took place December 9. Toys are loaded onto a truck and together with a caravan of classic cars—escorted by Cherry Hill police—they travel to Virtua Hospital in Voorhees, NJ. “There are usually about 50 cars in the caravan,” explained Lacroce, adding that toys collected throughout the year are also given to children at Weisman’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Marlton, NJ and the Osborn Family Health Center of Our Lady of Lourdes in Camden, NJ. The latter locations are not part of the Toy Run.

The staff at Virtua tells the board in advance which toys the children have requested. “What we don’t collect, we purchase,” said Lacroce, a grandfather of 10. “We usually spend about $7,000 a year on toys.”

Lacroce is committed to bringing comfort to children. He wasn’t always in a position to do so. Born in 1941 during World War II, in the small town of Isca in the Calabria region of Italy, Lacroce and his family lived on a self-sustaining farm. “The only thing we had to buy was salt,” he recalled. Times were difficult, remembers Lacroce. “My father was a prisoner of war in Africa.” Lacroce’s uncle lost his life during the war. There was little room for luxuries, he explains, not even for a bicycle – something the young Lacroce dreamed of owning. He never did get that bicycle, but understands what a simple toy can mean to a child who is suffering with an illness.

In 1958, when Lacroce was 17, he, his parents and three siblings immigrated to the United States and settled in South Philadelphia. With a two-year cabinetmaker apprenticeship already under his belt when arriving, Lacroce focused on honing the craft and expanded upon his carpentry skills. He also went to school three nights a week to learn English. It wasn’t easy grasping an entirely new language, but he persevered. He enrolled in continuing education classes and even took accordion lessons.

Lacroce became a hands-on (literally) businessman. In 1971, he launched Delaware Valley Designers and Manufacturers. With his own hands and a team of co-workers, he built the interiors of banks, mostly in Center City Philadelphia. “I was the pioneer (founder) of bullet resistant glass in banks,” Lacroce explained, an accomplishment in which he is particularly proud.

As his business grew, he invested some of the profits in commercial real estate. And today, although he is semi-retired, he still heads Ladmaj Realty Inc., a commercial real estate company. He also maintains a woodworking shop in Pennsauken where he custom makes cabinets for family and friends. It’s a hobby that keeps him fueled.

In 1976, Lacroce founded three subsidiary companies: United Woodworking, United Carpet and United Office Furniture. By owning the three businesses—where he secured contracts in Philadelphia, New York and Atlantic City—he and his team could efficiently work to build an entire bank interior over a weekend. He was able to start the job on a Friday night and have it ready in time for the bank’s opening Monday morning.

Lacroce worked long hours for decades. He ultimately financed the college education (Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees) for all six of his children. “I’m a big believer in education,” said Lacroce.

Sadly, his third born, Anne Marie, died of breast cancer in 2013. And one of his grandchildren, Audrey, was born in 2005 with severe developmental disabilities. Yet still, Lacroce aspires to warm the hearts of children.

Although he never did get that bicycle of his boyhood dreams, in 1990, he purchased a bright red Ferrari. He still owns it today along with such classics as a 1975 El Dorado convertible and 1987 560 Mercedes SL. Cars are clearly a passion—something he shares with many fellow board members.

Named as “top non-profit” by SNJ Business People publication, the charity is run by an active, dedicated 12-member Board of Directors.

Lacroce’s son, Anthony, is one of the newest members, serving as treasurer. Richard Miller, longtime president and CEO of Virtua, who retired at the end of 2017 and Jack DeAngelis of Morton & Rudolph, have also joined the board.

The group recently pledged $1 million to the Virtua Foundation to fund a pediatric mobile services program, which will serve children in need in neighborhoods primarily in the city of Camden and Gloucester County. They’ve also donated money for Virtua to build a cancer center in Moorestown.

Funds have been earmarked for concussion testing for young adults and wherever there is a need, whether for a wheelchair or medical equipment such as a defibrillator, monitor or an Eye in the Sky high tech camera.

“We don’t give money,” said Lacroce. The foundation donates an array of items: infant car seats, books, bookcases and electronic games for hospital activity rooms. They recently gave $25,000 to fund a PlayZone in Moorestown. “It’s a developmental skill set of equipment,” said Paglione.

Besides Virtua, the foundation donates to Weisman’s Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital and the Osborn Family Health Center at Our Lady of Lourdes. “Our next goal is to reach St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia,” said Lacroce. “They are in dire need of help.”

And although 42 years have passed since Lacroce lost his firstborn child, the memories of that heartbreaking diagnosis and the events of that fateful day remain vivid. Through his work with the foundation, his son’s memory will live on.

Lacroce and his former wife, Joann, were the parents of Joseph, Lisa and Ann Marie. The year was 1970. “Joseph had two egg sized tumors in his groin,” remembered Lacroce. The local pediatrician put him on antibiotics, but there was no improvement. Lacroce and his wife decided to take their 7-year-old son to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “At the time, it was located at 17th & Bainbridge,” recalled Lacroce. “Joseph packed his own overnight bag, including pajamas and a stuffed dog. It was his favorite toy.”

A series of tests revealed that Joseph had leukemia. “It was devastating news,” said Lacroce who returned to his car to get his son’s overnight bag. Not only were they dealing with the staggering news of a life-threatening illness, but the bag was gone. “It had been stolen,” said Lacroce, stunned at the discovery.

The staff at the hospital were incredibly kind and opened up the gift shop at night. “They told Joseph he could choose any toy he wanted,” said Lacroce. “He didn’t pick anything from the gift shop; he didn’t go into the gift shop. He only wanted his favorite stuffed animal.”

Joseph underwent several years of treatments including chemotherapy. The stress of the treatments and coping with the illness ultimately took a toll on Lacroce’s marriage. He and Joann divorced in 1973.

In 1978, Lacroce married Maria Papandrea. They had four children: Donna, Michael, Anthony and Julianne.

Lacroce understands that even the smallest gesture of a fluffy stuffed animal or a shiny new toy can truly lift a child’s spirit. At the end of the day, it is such simple pleasures that make it all worthwhile.

“The work that we do is very rewarding,” said Lacroce. “When we see special children, it pushes us to do even more.

“I have a wonderful board. I couldn’t do it without them.”