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Hollister Construction Gives Westfield Girl, 9, a Lift

Sara Cagnassola, born with cerebral palsy, had an elevator installed in the Westfield home her great grandfather built.

A conversation with a former college friend led to a dream-come-true experience for the Cagnassola family of Westfield. 

Thomas Cagnassola, 44, explained that he ran into his friend and former fraternity brother Chris Johnson at a New Year's Eve party four years ago. Knowing that Johnson was in the construction field, Cagnossola casually asked his advice on having an elevator installed in the English Tudor he shares with his wife and children. 

Johnson, founder and chief executive officer of the Parsippany-based Hollister Construction Services, said while he had noticed that Thomas was often carrying his daughter Sara, then 5, he didn't understand why his friend would want to undertake such a massive project.

Cagnassola explained that as much as he and his family wanted to remain in their home, built in 1932 by his grandfather, it was becoming increasingly difficult for his young daughter Sara, born with cerebral palsy, to navigate. 

"When Chris said he'd like to help, I knew he was sincere but what I didn't expect was that he not only picked up the ball and ran it though the end zone, but he kept going through the band and out the back door," said Cagnassola. 

Establishing the charitable foundation Strides for Sara in 2009, Johnson made it his mission to first find Sara a wheelchair which would allow her to remain in the Westfield School District. Without the chair, Johnson explained, Sara would have to be bussed nearly 45 minutes away to the Mountain Lakes School District.

While hosting a golf outing for Strides for Sara, Johnson mentioned the need to a colleague who serves with him at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

"He said, 'We just bought a brand new wheelchair for my mother but she passed away. It's never been used,'" said Johnson.

"Next thing we knew a Hollister truck pulled up and dropped off the wheelchair," said Cagnassola.

Once he'd secured the chair, Johnson said he was "off and running." Each year, Strides for Sara has been hosting a fundraising event with the long-term goal of installing an elevator inside the Cagnassolas' three-level home. 

This March that dream became a reality. After working with an architect and finding contractors and subcontractors who were willing to donate their time to this labor of love, the three-and-a-half story addition was complete.

Johnson explained that the project, which took a little more than five months to build, began with a ramp at the mud room level. Cagnassola said this ramp, which allows Sara the independence to go outdoors and visit with friends in the neighborhood without having to ask her mom for help, is just one of the examples of the ways the team took all of Sara's needs into consideration.  

Johnson said the kitchen and bathroom areas are now ADA-complaint. In addition, an electrician has outfitted the home so that through an iPad, Sara is able to adjust light and heat settings as well as see who is at the front door. 

"Sara is the fifth generation of our family to live in Westfield. My dad and grandfather are both Westfield High School graduates. This house means a lot to us. If it weren't for Chris and the Hollister Foundation we would have had to move to a ranch, I'm sure," said Cagnassola, who added that it was thrilling to watch the project come to life. "This is a fairy tale for any family with special needs. It's like something right out of one of those television shows."

Through his company’s charity, The Hollister Foundation, Johnson has raised more than $500,000 to promote awareness for organizations that foster children’s advancement through education and healthy initiatives. The organization supports a range of charities including Strides for Sara, United Way, Community Food Bank of New Jersey, Hugs from Home, and The Center for Autism.

Additionally, Johnson is a supporter of the Ryan Wolf Kossar Foundation, the CJ Foundation for SIDS, the Development School for Youth, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Family Services of Morris County and Fairleigh Dickinson University, according to Hollister's website. 

Sara's First Ride

Once the installation was complete, Sara reserved her first ride for the man who made it all possible--Johnson. The entire Hollister team, along with the subcontractors who donated their time and talent to the project, were at the Cagnassolas' home for the inaugural ride.

“It took four years of grit, determination and, most of all, love for Sara to see this project through, from getting permits and approvals, to raising donations and holding fund-raising events, to completing the construction work,” said Johnson. “All that effort came together when we saw the big smile on Sara’s face as she took her first ride on her elevator. It was a wonderful moment that reminded us of why we are committed as a company to building stronger communities by doing what we can to help those in need.”

Johnson said intially he had been thinking only about how the elevator would improve life for Sara but after taking their first ride together, Sara's reaction made him realize the full impact this gift would have on the Cagnassola family.

"She said, 'Now my mommy doesn’t have to carry me – it will help Mommy,'" recalled Johnson. "It was pretty moving."

"There wasn't a dry eye in the place," added Andrew Goetting, Hollister’s Business Development Manager.

Johnson said he was motivated to help his friend's family because he always believed Sara should be offered the same opportunities his own children have. 

"It's important to give back," said Johnson, a 2011 finalist in the Corporate Citizen of the Year category of the 2011 NJBIZ Business of the Year awards program. "But the actual gift was to us. After we finished, you felt good, like you could run through brick walls."

Cagnassola said he can't thank Johnson and his team of contractors, electricians and plumbers enough. "You've not only transformed my home but also my daughter's abilities," he said.

For more information about Hollister Construction Services, visit the company's website

stonette April 04, 2013 at 11:24 AM
What a great story!
sp resident April 04, 2013 at 12:13 PM
There's still good people in the world!
Mike April 04, 2013 at 12:26 PM
What good people they all are
Bernadette Kelly April 04, 2013 at 03:09 PM
Well deserved, thanks Hollister! Friends of Sara
Dennis Corwin April 04, 2013 at 06:11 PM
The biggest winner here is the town of Westfield because now it gets to keep Sara and the entire Cagnassola family right where they belong. Chris Johnson and the Hollister team have tried to downplay what they did as "no big deal" but the reality is that the quality of their work is only surpassed by the generosity in their hearts!
Tammy April 04, 2013 at 07:59 PM
What a wonderful little girl Sara is along with a wonderful family! Best wishes Always!
Denis April 05, 2013 at 12:06 PM
Great work to everyone involved. It's nice to read a story with a good message. Best wishes, Sara.
laurie April 05, 2013 at 10:11 PM
so true, Dennis!
laurie April 05, 2013 at 10:12 PM
so true, Dennis!
Mel Finnerty April 06, 2013 at 03:24 AM
I'm sitting here, my tears flowing with pure JOY!!! A beautiful story of the human spirit in action and love.. Thank you for sharing! Love, Mel
Joseph Ross April 06, 2013 at 04:45 PM
Proud to have you as a brother Chris!

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