This past Sunday, after a routine church service at the Mount Zion AME Church in Oakland Park, several organizations pulled together under one roof to meet the needs of the families and children in their community. Christmas gifts were collected and distributed alongside much needed bags of food as part of the church’s monthly food pantry to over 225 children and their families. And it wasn’t just the gifts that made the day special: Santa and his elves made their appearance to personally hand out presents to excited kids as young as 5 and even spreading cheer to the older members of the congregation.
Angel Alvarez and Hunter Miller, Santa and his elf respectively and Founders of Christmas for the Innocent, have been handing out wrapped gifts to children at the Boys and Girls club all over the county for the last 7 years. Their first year only started with 150 gifts, and it was such a success that they were requested to bring that joy back year after year. This year, however, they faced some obstacles from new policies being put in place by the county regarding kid-friendly events. They now needed background checks on everyone involved, which wouldn’t have been as issue, Alvarez stated. It was just simply too short notice for them to get it all in line and still be able to give out toys in time for Christmas.
Not wanting to let this unanticipated bureaucratic requirement foil their plans to bring holiday cheer, Angel began calling around to see who could benefit from their generosity. One of those calls was to Desiree Avila, the editor of Living In Oakland Park. After receiving the call Avila immediately contacted Rick Melillo from Oakland Park Kiwanis who in turn connected them with Coby King from Teen Alliance Project who connected them with Mt. Zion. They partnered with the Church, who graciously opened up their space, and pulled it all together to make this miracle on 33rd Street a reality for hundreds of children and their families.
Alvarez and Miller spent $500 of their own money to get it all started this year, but the rest of the gifts and preparation was a massive community effort. A gift wrapping party took place only a couple nights before, where even the motorcycle club showed up and donated another portion of the gifts that were present at the event. Kiwanis Club, and the Tikkitress Johnson Foundation donated a large portion of the food for the event. Even high school students gave their time, gaining volunteer hours, to help serve their younger peers.
The Youth Coordinator for the church, Krystal Byrd, was the main engine for the event on the church’s end of things. Her vision for the event was simply this: “Faith, Food, and Fellowship.” The overall feel was a sense of inclusion and joy for all the members of this community. There were 200 bags of food present alongside all the gifts, and by the end, everything had been sent home with any family who needed it.
While this event was focused on the children, it was also a clear reflection of Pastor Hardy’s, of Mount Zion AME Church, vision of how they can meet the needs of those around them. The church has many programs running and in the works, including transitional housing and services for ex-convicts and veterans, and even a thrift shop that will be entirely sourced with donations from the local community and give volunteer opportunities to elders as well. They also put on an MLK Day event every year, the next one being January 20, 2020.
Other families facing particularly difficult hardship this holiday season were touched greatly by the efforts of the church and Alvarez and Miller. Jackie Starke and Shanria, two local good samaritans, have been helping families that were displaced from the Bahamas after the devastating Hurricane Dorian struck the island.
Avila, who had connected with Starke earlier in the year, reached out to them when the event at Mt. Zion was in the works and connected them with the church and the holiday event. Alvarez and Miller were overjoyed with their presence. During the year they had helped raise over $5000 to help the Bahamas relief effort and were happy to bring holiday joy to these families.
A mother and 4 children between the ages of 6-13, who found resources and love right here in Oakland Park help her family move forward was at the event. After losing so much, including a younger cousin, age 6, to the hurricane, this gift giveaway and food drive has truly been a miracle for them in this trying season.
“These connections are a blessing from God,” said Pastor Hardy, when reflecting on all the positive outreach he’s been able to be a part of in his hometown. To walk into a room teaming with the joyous sounds of children and families coming together to spread joy to an area that is more challenged, and to see young people uplifted and encouraged by their elders, and to see the excitement and joy just a wave from Santa can bring to a young girl’s face, it was perfectly clear what this whole event was meant for. It’s to “plant that seed,” said Alvarez. That special moment of light and happiness in a child’s heart.
Brittany Hopwood was born and raised in Broward County and completed her Bachelor’s in English from the University of Central Florida. As an avid writer and artist, she spends most of her time designing new pieces for her self-care jewelry line, Violstones, and revising her most recent novel, written this past year. Her passion for writing and overcoming mental illness has lead her to develop a devotional Ebook based on her experience with overcoming severe depression, which she hopes to release later in 2020.