East Lake “Santa” embodies the spirit of “giving back” Christmas

This is an opinion column.

It started as a joke. A challenge.

Emondre Johnson had just graduated from Woodlawn High School four years ago when he shared a social media post asking families in his East Lake neighborhood if they needed toys for their children this Christmas.

Called himself East Lake Santa.

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The answers, as you will most likely imagine, were no joke.

“I’ve always been the type of person who wanted to find ways to give back,” Johnson tells me. “I took the momentum from the answers and turned it into giving back.”

He made it Eastern Toys, a non-profit organization that provides Christmas toys to low-income East Lake families with children 12 and under.

If you want something to feel good about this season of giving, if you need a reason to be optimistic about our youth, to see the light where there is too often darkness, the elder of the two Elicia and Walter Jonson’s boys (there’s also a sister), now 23-year-old Johnson embodies it all.

He’s always been a bit of the rescue type too. As a child, while living with older cousins, he brought a living lizard into the house. “They tore me apart about it,” Johnson recalls, laughing. Oh, and there was the pregnant cat.

Johnson took his love for animals, for saving and feeding them, north of Huntsville, to attend Alabama A&M and earn a degree in animal science. He now works as a vet tech (“I do everything the vet does but without the extra school he has,” he says) and plans to open a kennel soon.

Following the overwhelming response to his East Lake Santa social media post, Johnson pitched his nonprofit idea to Elicia. “She told me exactly what I had to do to get started – write plans with whatever I wanted to see out of the organization,” he said. “Then she takes care of everything from getting and wrapping the gifts to the calling families to make sure their kids get what they want.”

On December 8, Johnson, along with many of his family, including Walter and Elicia, blessed 15 families and their 47 children, with toys purchased especially for them. As if they had told Santa Claus.

Families were distilled from 230 applications, Max Johnson accepted this year after receiving 330 applications in 2020. He reads each one. “All I did was read the nominations last year,” he said. “I didn’t do it anymore.”

Information requested from families includes the age and size of clothing for each child, as well as requests for specific toys. This is why so many faces lit up as brightly as the tree lights behind them as they unwrapped the bundle of gifts.

In previous years, Johnson has delivered gifts (“I didn’t do that either,” he said with a laugh) to families. This year he welcomed them to Encore Theater and Gallery, a black-owned facility on the Gadsden Freeway which, according to its website, “[presents and cultivates] works showcasing African Americans [projects] and performers. There was food, games and words of encouragement from Johnson – after an uncertain start as families crowded in with some parents coming in without their children.

“I’m frustrated,” Johnson recalls. “But at some point it all started to work. I had no expectations of what would come out of it, so I let it go. I started to think too much at first. I calmed down and it all happened, and I was able to convey what I wanted to say to the people who were there.

Johnson wants to “create a positive cycle of giving back and supporting the community,” he said. “It starts with the kids: giving them toys and stimulating activities and words. It stimulates their creativity and their mind. Someday in the future, they will take what has been given to them, it is the cycle of positivity.

He also hopes to embody for other young people that they don’t have to be rich superstars to enrich others. “A lot of people in our generation think that you have to be someone to give back,” he said. “People start to think, ‘I have nothing to do, therefore I can’t do anything.’ Anyone can be a leader. You just have to have a plan and follow it.

“We need each other to raise children,” he continues. “Youth is the future for me. Anything I can do to empower them in a way that allows them to create and achieve their goals, I will.

In early 2020, Johnson extended his plans for Eastern Toys beyond Christmas. They’ve been derailed by the pandemic – no, just denied it, as he now intends to implement the plans. They include a haircut, school supplies and holiday turkey gifts, as well as scholarships.

“For the scholarship, I will ask them to write an essay on one thing they would like to do to improve their community,” he says. “Then, in addition to the scholarship, I will show them how to do what they wanted to do to have an impact in their community.

“It will be huge for me,” he said with a smile. “They’ll think they’re just writing an essay.”

Much like a young man four years ago jokingly believed he was just creating a social media post.

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Roy S. Johnson is a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and the winner of the 2021 Edward R. Morrow Prize for podcast: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times, Mobile Press-Register. Reach it at [email protected], follow him on twitter.com/roysj, or on Instagram @roysj.

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