Knoxville woman takes toys to children who've suffered the violent death of a parent

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For 5-year-olds Kyira and Rreeona, Santa Claus came early this year.

Clad in red, carrying bags of wrapped toys and goodies and donning a hat trimmed in white fur (though it read "Bah Humbug" across the band), she visited their family's Mount Oliver home Friday.

Santa's name is Brandi Boyd, and the children on her list need a little extra help, she says.

They've all lost a parent to violence.

"I want to try to bring a little joy to them, even though what they really want I can never bring back, which is their parent," she said sitting among stacks of toys ready to be delivered. "But I can show them there are people out who do care about it and are willing to do whatever we can to help them."

She made her merry way to Mount Oliver to bring presents to Kyira Davis, Rreeona Whitaker and their brother, Duerryl Whitaker Jr., 7, and sister Parris Whitaker, 2. The youngest sister was born two months after their father, Duerryl Whitaker Sr., was shot and killed in the West End. Two men were convicted in his November 2010 death.

Ms. Boyd made sure each of the children got something they'd especially enjoy. The 5-year-old sisters couldn't wait to open their tiaras and Barbie dolls. Duerryl carefully started unwrapping his cars and then tore into them. And Parris toddled across the room, quietly saying thank you before taking her presents: a noisy, flashing boom box and cell phone.

These are just four of the more than 40 children Ms. Boyd, 30, of Knoxville will deliver toys to, in neighborhoods from Coraopolis to East Liberty. She's already visited 18, and today, on Christmas Eve, she'll go see 10 more kids.

"I'm so thankful for Brandi, for her heart to think of someone else's child at this time of year," said India Murphy of the Hill District. Ms. Boyd brought her daughter, Lyric, 8, got a lava lamp and bracelet-making kit.

She didn't set out to be Santa.

Ms. Boyd had worked for the anti-violence group One Vision One Life, and when it folded, she wanted to remain in touch with her case load of 15 "troubled" kids, so she created a Facebook page, "Rip Fallen Soldiers," which now has 5,000 friends who share photos and thoughts about lost loved ones and provide support to each other.

It's about healing, she says.

The cyber community rallies year-round, sometimes organizing candlelight vigils, sometimes raising money for funerals, and for the second year, donates to Ms. Boyd's toy drive.

She checks her list twice, a handwritten grid of children and their ages in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spiral-bound notebook. She sources the list by monitoring her Facebook page and the news, keeping an eye out for people who have violently died.

Toys for newborns to teens cover a room in her mother's Beechview home. A skateboard sits on the couch. Baby dolls and board games, remote control cars and clothes, music players and diaries all wait for a child.

Two almost-ceiling-high stacks of Lego boxes sit in the corner, a donation from Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and his wife, Gisele.

Last year, Ms. Boyd started collecting donations three weeks before Christmas and took toys to about 15 families. While she started collecting Oct. 1, this year, donations didn't start trickling in until two weeks before Christmas, she said. Some people donate in memory of their family members. Others -- last year's recipients -- donate this year.

Each child receives two to three gifts, depending on the gifts' values, and as they tear into wrapping paper, Ms. Boyd snaps photos to post on the page, to be sure donors see where their kindness ends up.

"At the end of the day, the child's smiles make it all worth it," she said.

But it's not easy.

Parents die all the time.

"It happens so much. These guys are leaving behind so many kids," she said.

She's doing it alone.

Her truck recently caught fire, so she's using her mom's to make deliveries.

She wants to start her own nonprofit.

The hardest part though, she says, is "it's very emotional, not being able to provide more."

As for Brandi's sons, Raemire, 9, and Mike, 5?

They have to wait for Christmas to get their toys, but watch their mom carry loads of toys in and out of the house, often asking, "This is for that toy drive, isn't it? Not for us?"

"It gives me a chance to show them what Christmas is about. It's not about receiving, it's about giving," Ms. Boyd said.

Lexi Belculfine:, 412-263-1878 or on Twitter @LexiBelc.

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