As 6-year-old Jelaniya Current and her 4-year-old brother, Jelani Current, sat anxiously in a Cortana Mall conference room filled with bicycles, basketballs and wrapped presents, their eyes lit up as they noticed their names on two new bicycles.
They leapt from their seats, ran around the table and pounced on their new bikes.
After posing on their bicycles for pictures with City Constable Reginald Brown Sr., president of Holiday Helpers, they took turns riding around the crowded room.
“I was so excited,” Jelaniya said of seeing her name on the bicycle.
“Me too!” Jelani said almost in unison with his older sister.
The two are among 2,000 to 3,000 children that are helped annually by Holiday Helpers, a group created by former East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Elmer Litchfield in 1986 to help foster a positive image for law enforcement, and the Christmas Crusade, started two years later by local radio station as a way to get law enforcement involved during the holidays.
Brown said a core group organizes events, but hundreds more donate time, money and gifts to help the less fortunate during the holiday season. Organizations, business and people “adopt” families and buy Christmas presents for children in those families, he said.
On Friday, 10 families were invited to pick up their gifts, instead of having law enforcement deliver them, as is the custom.
“It was special in a number of ways,” Brown said of Friday’s event. “My philosophy is we want to make every kid feel special. Our mission is to make sure no child or family goes without a gift.”
Karescia Brown and her four children were one of the families invited to the Christmas event.
Two months ago, Brown, 29, of Baton Rouge, and her children — Jhireon Brown, 10; Jhireal Brown, 9; Marquis Stalling, 7; and M’Kayla Brown, 5 — moved out of their old apartment and into a house. The children’s mother said she wanted them to play outside like children and not grow up too quickly.
Because of the moving expenses, Karescia Brown said, she would lay awake at night wondering how she would be able to buy Christmas presents for her children. She said she confided her worries to an official at her children’s Head Start program who said he would make calls, but could not promise anything.
She said she received a call from a Holiday Helpers official Friday morning, instructing her to pick up a package at Cortana Mall after 2 p.m.
“I tell you that it could have been a card and I would have been satisfied,” she said.
Brown struggled to hold back tears when she saw the bag of toys and box of food, as well as a store gift card, part of which she said she would use to buy ornaments for her Christmas tree.
“I didn’t know what it would be. The smallest thing to the biggest thing, it helps because I couldn’t have done it on my own,” she said.
Each year, Holiday Helpers receives a variety of donations — from oversized boxes of food that can feed a family of 10, to a check of $3,500 from students at Broadmoor High School, to bicycles donated by businesses and organizations that prefer to remain anonymous, Reginald Brown said.
He said the group welcome all types of donations, but is selective when it comes to toys for young children.
“We try to give educational items, but since this program has been in existence, we have not given away weapons,” Brown said, referring to plastic guns and knives.
He said they also ask for recreational items, like bicycles or sports items, but those can get expensive.
Cortana Mall officials give the group empty space to store the toys and this year, officials let them use space that previously housed a bookstore, Brown said. The shelves are still there, which helped volunteers keep thousands of toys in order.
Reginald Brown tells families these presents they receive from Holiday Helpers should supplement, and not take the place of, what they can buy for their children or grandchildren themselves.
Rosemary Campbell, 53, of Baton Rouge, has nine grandchildren, four in her legal custody, who she takes care of and she finds it hard to buy gifts for all nine.
“It’s a great help out and it’s helping me a whole lot. With all the grandkids I have, I’m on a fixed income and I’m not able to buy for all of them,” Campbell said. “It makes Christmas a whole lot better. Without this, I don’t know what I would be able to do. This is a blessing.”