Volunteers fanned out through the community, alerting children and their families that Santa Claus was in the neighborhood, giving out Christmas presents as the repurposed Chesapeak Shredding truck trundled along Meadowood Drive, its horn sounding loudly.
A crowd of children and parents formed quickly as the truck parked at Meadowood and Ironwood Court in Edgewood’s Windsor Valley community. The truck’s rear door slid up to reveal boxes filled with nearly 600 gifts, wrapped and sorted by age and gender and then distributed to any child who came to visit — the gifts were available to youths ranging in age from babies to teenagers.
The volunteers providing the gifts on a cold, yet sunny, Sunday afternoon were with the nonprofit, faith-based group Breathe 379. Breathe’s founder and CEO, Michael Nolan, has been working with people in need in Harford County for about 15 years, organizing holiday toy drives, providing meals and other services.
“If I ever found out about a need, I would do whatever I could to take care of it,” he said.
Nolan had been working on his own for many years, but he brought together a board and advisory committee and made Breathe 379 an official nonprofit about four years ago. The name comes from the Bible, the Book of Ezekiel Chapter 37, Verse 9, when God says, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
“We believe that Jesus is simply crazy about you, about the kids we are going to see,” he told a group of about 30 people who gathered in Breathe’s main building on Nuttal Avenue before heading out.
Nolan tasked most of the volunteers with going through the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and telling residents that their children could come out and get free Christmas gifts. Each child got a gift, an opportunity to greet Santa and pose for photos with him, and then sign an oversized card — cards from Breathe’s past Christmas toy drives were hung on the walls of the Nuttal Avenue building, covered with signatures.
A festive atmosphere developed at each stop in the Windsor Valley and Harford Square neighborhoods as children and parents interacted with Santa and the Breathe volunteers.
“It’s nice, I didn’t know it was happening today,” Windsor Valley resident Mydalis Perez said of the toy drive — it had been designed as a surprise event.
Perez got a gift for her 10-month-old daughter, Dream Abramson. She also called her sister and alerted her to the toy drive.
“You can bring the kids and get a gift,” Perez told her sister.
Raushanah Scott, another Windsor Valley resident, her 13-year-old son, Johnathon Milian, and 6-year-old daughter, Iliana Carey, chatted with Breathe board member Nick Nizer. Nizer later said he knew Scott and her children from their prior attendance at Central Christian Church’s services Sundays at the Bel Air Armory. The church also provides meals after the services and puts on an annual Thanksgiving dinner at the Armory through its Hope in Action ministry.
Scott said her children received Christmas gifts from Breathe volunteers last year, too.
“I really enjoy it, and it’s such a good gift to the kids,” Scott said of the toy drive.
Her son, Johnathon, described the event as “cool” and said he got a skateboard last year. Her daughter, Iliana, said it was “good” to get a gift. Scott said the gifts received Sunday will be opened on Christmas Day.
Resident Quinn Wade, who has six children, got gifts for his younger kids, ages 3, 5, 6 and 13. He also prayed with Nolan.
“It helps you be in a better place, because everybody needs something at some point,” Wade said of Breathe’s services.
He noted that the toy drive helps families in need that are struggling to find gifts for their children, as well as families like his that are in better shape, and the kids get an extra gift.
“That’s the beautiful thing,” said Wade, who noted that when his children get an extra present, “they’re happy.”
Latrelle Green and his 3-year-old son, Lacree, visited when the truck stopped at Meadowood and Candlewood Drive. Green took a photo of his son as the child posed with Santa Claus.
“He’s going to be happy [if] there is a toy in here for him,” Green said, holding his son’s wrapped gift.
Dejha Hernandez, who was part of a group in a third part of Windsor Valley that came out to the truck, said she was excited to open her gift, which was a round object.
“I think that it might be one of those L.O.L. balls,” the 8-year-old said, referring to the popular L.O.L. Surprise! packages that open to reveal smaller, surprise toys.
Excited children rushed to greet Santa as the truck pulled up at two spots in Harford Square.
Marcus Craig, 13, and his friends rushed along the street toward where the truck was parked at Harford Square’s community center — volunteers urged them to watch out for vehicle traffic.
Marcus initially thought his gift would be a Marvel action figure, but he was excited to see what it turned out to be, a small Limit speaker.
“Oh God, that’s so cool,” Marcus said as he unwrapped the present.
“It’s good that they get presents, too,” he said when asked his thoughts on the younger children with him who received gifts.
Damari Lows, who turned 4 years old Sunday, smiled as the volunteers sung “Happy Birthday” to him.
“Thank you,” he replied when the group finished singing.
Damari’s mother, Shakeitha Hamilton, came out with him and her 2-month-old son, Kayson Osborne. Kayson remained in his stroller much of the time, except when Santa picked the baby up and held him while volunteer Mariah Yost snapped a photo — Yost had been documenting the toy giveaway with her camera.
“I think it’s nice,” Hamilton said of the giveaway. “We never had this before, and we recently moved here, so it’s really nice.”
Hamilton and her family moved to Harford County from New Jersey about two years ago. She described the community as “quiet — it’s nice, nobody troubles you.”
‘This is a blessing’
Harford Square resident Donna Elliott called the toy drive “awesome” and a “blessing.”
The holidays have been very difficult for Elliott in recent years since the August 2017 homicide of her 15-year-old granddaughter, Maleigha Solonka. The teen’s body was found in Havre de Grace after her guardians, who live in Edgewood, reported her missing.
Havre de Grace resident Naeshawn Jaheim-Troy Perry, now 18, was arrested in 2018 and has been charged with first and second-degree murder in Solonka’s death. A hearing in the case is scheduled for next Monday, Dec. 30, and a trial has been set for March, according to online court records — the trial was postponed in late October after too few people could be selected for the jury.
Elliott, who is raising three of Solonka’s siblings, noted the challenges of raising grandchildren, and she said the holidays can be “depressing,” although events such as Breathe’s gift giveaway help.
“This is a good thing,” she said. “When you’re sitting around and you’re sad all day, this is a blessing.”
Not all of the gifts were given out Sunday afternoon; those which were not claimed by neighborhood children will go to families that Breathe 379 officials have been in contact with, board president Donny Testerman said.
The organization offers multiple services to people in need, such as meals, clothing, appliances, home furnishings, community events and meals and gifts during Thanksgiving and Christmas. People who receive services once are asked to perform volunteer work with Breathe to get additional services.
“We want to get people out of their situation,” Testerman said. “We don’t just want to keep enabling them.”