Celebrate the holiday season like a hero!
So many of us are blessed to know real joy during the holidays. We’re surrounded by the love of family and friends, an abundance of food (and leftovers!) and a bounty of presents. But in some communities, underserved families and disadvantaged children are unable to relish in the wonder of Thanksgiving and Christmas to the fullest extent. Fortunately, public figures Mayor Aja Brown, Russell Westbrook, Ludacris, Jennifer Hudson, Tanya Van Court and Hill Harper—with the help of their teams and nonprofit organizations—lend their time, celebrity and resources to help those in need. From Chicago to Los Angeles, these champions of holiday cheer host toy drives, food drives and reinvent gift-giving in a way that brings true meaning back to the season. Here's to these holiday heroes for giving back each year.
Seasonal Slam Dunk
Russell Westbrook scores big in community
By Niki McGloster
Russell Westbrook may lead the league in triple-doubles as the star and point guard of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it’s off the court where Westbrook truly puts forth his best headline-worthy efforts. As a part of his private non-profit organization, Why Not? Foundation, Westbrook strives to empower underprivileged urban youth to challenge their adverse surroundings.
Since the inception of Why Not? in 2012, the Jordan Brand athlete is committed to family service programs and combatting youth literacy throughout the year, including the installation of nine Russell’s Reading Rooms in elementary schools (in partnership with Scholastic’s national reading challenge), where kids can access 1,200 books with friends in a safe space.
During the holiday season, however, the real-life superhero ramps up his good deeds. Why Not? and Westbrook eagerly support and provide for communities facing hardships. This year, Westbrook and Why Not?—including his parents—served food at his 5th annual Thanksgiving dinner for the community at both the Boys & Girls Club in Oklahoma City and at the place where Westbrook’s basketball journey began, the Jesse Owens Park in South Los Angeles.
“My mom said always find a way to come back to your roots,” he told press covering the event. “It’s always important to keep you humble and knowing what’s important in life.”
Plans for Christmas? If tradition from previous years is any indication, Westbrook will throw a joyful holiday celebration for homeless and foster kids, who will be gifted with new Jordan Brand shoes, backpacks and encouragement to never give up.
Mayor Aja Brown gives back in a real way
By Niki McGloster
Mayor Aja Brown is used to making a difference. As the youngest elected Mayor at 31 years old, Brown is a dedicated agent of impactful change in what was once the dismal city of Compton.
In July 2013, the political newcomer took office and has since helped impoverished communities face devastating hardships by exhibiting the type of relatable, in-the-streets charitable work that focuses squarely on boosting family values and quality of life as it. Annually, the Pasadena, Calif. native enlists celebrity friends and partners with nonprofit organizations and brands, such as Wal-Mart to MadMac Foundation, to ensure thousands of families don’t go without during the holidays.
“That’s what the holidays are all about,” she said during the Turkey giveaway, “helping those who are less fortunate.”
This past Thanksgiving, Mayor Brown worked with Master P and rapper YG’s 4HundredWaze Foundation to feed families and seniors at the Douglas F. Dollarhide Community Center for the 3rd Annual Compton Community Thanksgiving Dinner. She also joined The Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and other community leaders to distribute 10,000 turkeys to underserved families during Progress California’s 12th annual Turkey Giveaway.
For Christmas, more of the same Santa-style giveback is to be expected. In 2015, Brown hosted the Compton Christmas Grocery Giveaway alongside actor Anthony Anderson and ESPN broadcaster and NFL Veteran Marcellus Wiley to feed over 1,000 families.
It’s seasonal acts like these that prove Mayor Brown is dedicated to helping make Compton a better place during the most wonderful time of the year.
A Christmas Story
Jennifer Hudson honors family by giving back
By Niki McGloster
Jennifer Hudson turned her family’s suffering into philanthropy. After enduring the tragic deaths of her mother Darnell Donnerson, brother Jason Hudson and nephew Julian King, the Grammy award-winning singer and actress and her sister Julia founded the Julian D. King Gift Foundation in 2009.
Named after Julia’s late son, the nonprofit organization supports disadvantaged kids in the Chicago area throughout the school year and holiday season by providing them with school supplies (backpacks and school supplies) and presents. “[We] went and turned something so sad to try to make it as positive as possible so we can look forward to Christmas again,” Jennifer explained of the generous holiday cheer.
Each year, the Hudson sisters collect donations from the people of Chicago to host a Christmas dinner and toy drive. But the show of humanitarianism isn’t just about ensuring that each child receives a gift, but it’s also necessary for the siblings to carry on Julian’s spirit. “We decided to giveaway toys to keep his legacy going on,” Julia told press during last year’s drive. “Julian was a blessed child so we decided to try to bless somebody else.”
So why is Jennifer, in particular, a holiday hero? It’s simple: She uses her celebrity for good. “If you can, why not help?” Jennifer said. “To me, that’s what it’s about. It’s one thing to be famous and all of that stuff, but if I can’t help somebody else then it’s in vain. So this makes it all worth the while.”
No Youth Left Behind
Ludacris loves the kids
By Niki McGloster
By now, fans know just how much Ludacris loves the kids. For over 15 years, the foundation and Grammy award-winning artist and actor, born Christopher Bridges, has devoted over 10,000 hours to youth across the nation. Through initiatives that target leadership, education and healthy living, Luda and TLF’s mission is to empower kids to help themselves. But during Thanksgiving and Christmas, Luda turns up his give-back game and allows kids to simply enjoy the season.
Each year, Luda and TLF–with the help of his mother who helps run the foundation–spread holiday cheer to underprivileged families, whether it’s by delivering countless gifts and coats to hospitals and community centers for LudaKids or hosting a turkey drive to guarantee certain kids and communities don’t feel left out of the seasonal joy.
“I can’t really even put it into words, when we put smiles on kids’ faces, it makes my Christmas better,” Ludacris said during a visit to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in 2013.
And his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Black Enterprise named The Ludacris Foundation as one of the top 20 "Leading Philanthropy Foundations." In 2015, Luda was also honored by the House of Representatives in Georgia and Jeb Bush for his Ludacris Foundation.
“I do it because I want to encourage anybody and everybody to always give back,” he said at the Georgia Capitol. “Sometimes people think giving back means going into your pocket. Sometimes it's just about dedicating energy and time, but you can volunteer in your own community just to help clean up- things of that nature. I think it's just one neighborhood at a time.”
The Giving Gentleman
Hill Harper helps spread holiday cheer
By Niki McGloster
Hill Harper isn’t putting on a show when he works with kids.
The veteran performer and best-selling author founded Manifest Your Destiny Foundation to serve youth through “mentoring, academic enrichment programming, college access skills attainment and the facilitation of psychosocial and physical development strategies,” as stated on the MYD website. Though Harper and his team are knee-deep in empowering youth throughout the year—Summer Empowerment Academy, community service projects, field trips and empowerment conferences—he caps off his good deeds with an annual toy drive and fundraiser created especially to bring kids happiness.
Hosted alongside with Nate Parker and his self-titled foundation, the holiday fete has become one of Black Hollywood’s most anticipated events. VIPs in attendance have included Mayor of Compton Aja Brown, actor and photographer Lance Gross, Insecure actress Yvonne Orji and other influential figures in entertainment, politics and sports.
Together, Harper and Parker gift over 2,000 children with toys every year and hope to not only bring cheer to disadvantaged families, but to also evoke compassion from others to give back.
This year marks the 9th annual Christmas celebration and will join forces with the Salvation Army Transitional Center. And with continuous charitable efforts under his belt, Harper may even beat out St. Nick in the running for kids’ favorite guy.
Tanya Van Court makes gift-giving more meaningful
By Niki McGloster
It’s easy to get caught up in all the materialism hype of holiday shopping. But Tanya Van Court, founder of iSow, has created a way to redirect the focus to what really matters—giving back.
iSow is an app that helps parents teach their children how to fundraise for organizations of their choice. The mother of two launched the e-philanthropy idea in 2015 when her daughter Gabrielle still managed to receive meaningless gifts for her 9th birthday after asking for “an investment account and a bike.” So, Court decided to put the power back into kids’ hands.
“We let kids sign up for goals instead of goods,” she told Good Morning America. “So that when family and friends say, ‘What do they want for the holidays,’ they can go check out what they’re sowing for and contribute to meaningful goals in their lives and the lives of others.”
The short if it? Kids can head online to create a profile and decide which organization your child would like to fundraise for three categories: the future, sharing with others and spending on things that really matter. Or, in other words, they can sow their good deeds for the year. Then, all they have to do is ask for donations by sharing the page with friends and family and watch their goals grow.
It goes without saying that a Black woman successful redefining gift-giving as it pertains to investing and charity is a huge feat. So if anyone deserves a heap of Christmas gifts of appreciation this year, it’s this holiday shero.
By Lihle Z. Mtshali
When most of us think charitable organizations that help the poor, we think of soup kitchens and food pantries, maybe even warm coat donations for the winter. But one 16-year-old Atlanta high school junior thought outside the box. Toilet paper.
Kendall Robinson’s Love Rolls foundation has been collecting and distributing toilet paper to the homeless and families in need since April.
“The idea came to me in the summer of 2015 while I was volunteering at a local food pantry through the Atlanta Community Food Bank Youth Summit. One man told me that he had to make an entire roll of toilet paper last for an entire month. I couldn’t believe it. Here was something that we all take for granted and it was a huge challenge for this man.
“The purpose of the youth summit was to encourage us to pay attention to the kind of challenges faced by people living in poverty everyday and hopefully we would be inspired to help. I was definitely inspired,” said Robinson.
She told Essence that the homeless man’s story stuck with her, so she decided to do a toilet paper drive to collect rolls for those in need. What was originally meant to be a week-long drive through school and social media ended up seeing Robinson, who was then only 15-years-old, collect a box of toilet paper from donors everyday for a month.
That was when she decided to establish her non-profit organization, Love Rolls, the purpose of which is to “love on the homeless and needy communities and restore their dignity,” she said.
Since April they have collected over 200,000 toilet rolls.
The organization has received commendations from President Barack Obama, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia Secretary of State Brian P. Kemp, and the mayor of the county where Robinson lives, among others.
Love Rolls has partnered with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which provides Robinson with a list of already vetted charitable agencies that she can distribute toilet rolls to. Love Rolls has two distributions a month, one at its warehouse where the agencies come to collected boxes of toilet rolls and another at a local park, directly to the homeless.
This week Robinson and her crew of volunteers, which includes her 11-year-old sister and friends she has known since elementary school days, are heading to New Jersey for their first out-of-state toilet paper drive, in partnership with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
Robinson, who has the wisdom of someone far older than her tender age, says her foundation is fortunate to be working out of a donated warehouse, but right now the biggest challenge they face is funding that will enable them to branch further out than Georgia. Her dream is to one day reach all states and outside the U.S. in countries like Cuba and Nicaragua and as far as the African continent.
“Right now even traveling outside of our community requires us to use money out of our own pockets, which can put a strain on us financially. So we can’t go as far we wish we could, but we are working towards that and we are grateful for those who have been donating through our website.”
For now, the teen who dreams of one day becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon and doing medical mission work in Kenya or Uganda hopes that her efforts will encourage other teens to do the same in their communities.
By Lihle Z. Mtshali
Charolette Tidwell, a retired nurse from Fort Smith in Arkansas, has made it her life’s mission to build the kind of strong American communities that she grew up within.
She’s achieving this goal in her own community through her charitable organization, Antioch Youth and Family, which not only feeds up to 7,000 people every month but also provides teaching and mentorship programs for children and youth.
“I grew up poor, but in our community, there was always someone to help you when you were in need. The church that my parents, grandparents, siblings and I went to had a food program and a program for children and youth - all things that I have today at Antioch.
“We don’t see that sense of community in America today, one person attaching themselves to another. The need to build a strong, connected community is what keeps me going and gets me up every morning. I want children to understand the value of community, that we can help each other grow,” Tidwell told Essence.
Antioch is a food pantry that has been running since 2000 when Tidwell retired from her 45-year nursing career. It provides meals for seniors, veterans and families five days a week. It also runs a community garden, Antioch Discovery Garden, that produces food for the hungry and teaches work ethic to children who volunteer there. As part of the organization’s youth development program, children are also encouraged to visit nursing homes five times a year and work in the food pantry.
As if that wasn’t enough, Tidwell takes it a step further by hosting events that marry generations together and build community ties through food, physical activities for the kids, like horseback riding, and free medical and legal services for the adults.
“The program is always geared towards children developing a dream. Impoverished and disadvantaged children have difficulty seeing what they can be when they grow up, so we have programming and build relationships that will help give the children confidence and a wider scope of what their future could be,” said Tidwell.
Having an all volunteer staff helps keep the running costs down, but having the finances to keep food on the tables of the impoverished in a state that is ranked number one in the nation in low food security by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still Tidwell’s biggest challenge. So much so that she works unpaid six days a week and selflessly gives more than 50 percent of her monthly pension towards the food pantry.
“I think I have OCD. I can’t sit around playing bridge all day, so I work very hard for my community and live very frugal. My house is paid for, I go nowhere and do nothing so I can use my pension to help others.”
But not even the lack of funds will stand in Tidwell’s way. With the help of 142 volunteers, Antioch was able to donate hundreds of food baskets for Thanksgiving and plans are in motion for a December 20th seniors Christmas dinner.
She may as well be wearing a cape in our eyes, but Tidwell does not see herself as a hero. She stresses the importance of teaching children that they can make a difference wherever they are.
“You don’t necessarily have to aspire to be the President of the United States. You can if you want to do that, but not everybody has to because real heroes reside in every small community.”
More than anything, she wants others to follow in her footsteps and finish the work she has started. “For people to glorify me is not important, for them to follow in my footsteps to build a better community is what is important to me,” she said.
ESSENCE's Holiday Heroes