Six-year-old Amare Wilkerson is quick to tell you what's on his Christmas wish list, but he's even more eager to tell you what he's getting his mom -- as long as you promise not to tell her.
Three days before Thanksgiving, Amare and other kids ran around the Ammon Recreation Center gym, laughing and playing between bites of potatoes and cookies.
The occasion? ACH Clear Pathways hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for families of children in its after-school program. First-grader Amare, whose mom Sophia Green says is full of personality and loves to perform, said the blessing over the food Monday night.
With her 18-month old son Ezra, sitting on her lap eating chicken, executive director Tyian Battle said ACH Clear Pathways, which is based at the Hill District rec center, provides low-cost visual and performing arts programs to urban community at-risk youth to nurture their social, emotional and long-term development skills.
For kids in kindergarten through sixth grade, that means they get their homework done and then participate in activities like photography and African drumming. Amare especially loves karate, Ms. Green said.
When school's out for summer, creative camps kick in, and students participate in projects like the mosaic mural they helped make with artist James Simon at the corner of Gist Street and Forbes Avenue.
"They don't have to turn to the streets. They turn to us," said Brianna Rice, 18, who works for Clear Pathways.
More than 200 kids have benefited from the organization since Ms. Battle founded it in 2010, after her 7-year-old son Amon C. Harris died from a heart condition.
The Thanksgiving dinner is just one way ACH Clear Pathways brings families and children together, said Ms. Green, 26, of Mount Oliver. But it's also a chance for parents to give back to the organization that's so important to them. She donated yams to the Thanksgiving feast.
But working as an assistant at a salon, Ms. Green said she lives paycheck-to-paycheck and that the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program helps at Christmas. Last year, Amare got an arts and crafts set and action figures through the program.
"I appreciate the community, and all the help I get here," she said.
Another mom, India Murphy, 29, of the Hill District, also raved about the program. Ms. Battle is "truly a blessing," she said.
For the first time, Ms. Murphy said she'll rely on Toys for Tots to help put gifts under the tree for her 8-year-old daughter Lyric.
"Being a single parent, it's always nice to have the extra help," she said.
After dinner, Lyric ticked off on her fingers the things she wants for Christmas. But it's possible Lyric won't have to wait quite that long.
"I love to see the expression on her face when she's opening her gifts," Ms. Murphy said of the girl sporting a hot pink bow and red glasses. "I thank God for her every day. She's amazing."
ACH Clear Pathways is one of scores of agencies participating in Toys for Tots to ensure that children in needy families experience the joy and wonder of Christmas.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Goodfellows Fund, a holiday tradition since 1947, raises money for Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army's Treasures for Children program. We hope you will consider a donation to this worthy effort, using the coupon that accompanies this story or online at www.post-gazette.com/goodfellows.
Every donation will be acknowledged in the newspaper.
How to get toys
The Toys for Tots program will hold open houses this month to distribute toys to parents and guardians of needy children.
They will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 13 and 14 at Guardian Storage Solutions, 2839 Liberty Ave., Strip District.
Parents and guardians are required to bring photo ID for themselves, a birth certificate for each child (children up to age 12 are eligible) and proof of need: an EBT card, Access card or SNAP card.
Those wishing to volunteer to assist Toys for Tots can visit www.pittsburghcares.org.
Lexi Belculfine: email@example.com, 412-263-1878 or Twitter: @LexiBelc.