Survivors keep Christmas alive for kids left behind

HYDE PARK, Mass. — Emerald Garner remembers Christmas as a ‘big deal’ growing up.

“My mom and my dad had five kids together,” she said. “My father was always Santa Claus.”

Emerald’s father was Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after a New York City police officer put him in an illegal chokehold during a confrontation over the alleged illegal sale of cigarettes. It was during that incident that Garner was caught on amateur video saying the three words that have become synonymous with the racial justice movement: “I can’t breathe.”

Sunday, Garner and two other activists organized ‘Christmas For Survivors’ as a way to make the end of this difficult year somewhat brighter for families who have lost loved ones to incarceration or murder, especially children.

“For some of them, Santa’s not going to show up,” said Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of Violence in Boston, Inc., and another event organizer. “And for some of them, they’re not going to be able to eat. And then you couple that with the pandemic and everything that’s happening right now and it’s really hard times. Especially for young kids of color.”

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The Santa part of it was the third organizer’s idea.

Sean Ellis spent more than 20 years in prison on charges that he murdered a Boston police detective before a judge overturned his convictions in 2015. It took another three years for the Suffolk County District Attorney to drop all charges against Ellis.

During his time behind bars, Ellis had seen plenty of parents missing Christmas with their kids.

“It’s for the babies and it’s for them to have a Merry Christmas,” Ellis said. “Somebody loves you, somebody cares about you, that’s really what it’s all about for me, and I believe I speak for all three of us.”

Christmas For Survivors was held at Violence in Boston’s Social Impact Center in Hyde Park. Some families came in to pick up wrapped presents. Others chose to keep their social distance and waited as gifts were brought out to their cars.

“It’s been hard for everyone,” said Kariana Ervin after Ellis helped carry boxes to her vehicle. “Just to be able to get a little bit of help, especially from an organization like this, it means so much to my family as well as my children.”