Julio Avila and his wife didn’t get the chance to wrap all their Christmas presents for their three daughters, Isabel, 13, Angela, 11, and Lupita, 3. Wrapping paper was still sitting on the couch when a fire broke out at their Cicero apartment at 1 a.m. on Christmas Day.
The fire took everything they had – including items they had bought for their baby expected to arrive any day now.
“We lost everything,” Avila told the Tribune in a phone call after the Friday event. “We hadn’t gotten a chance to celebrate Christmas.”
The family got their second chance at a Christmas celebration during the Andrew Holmes Foundation and Schofield Family Foundation’s second annual holiday party at the Salvation Army Red Shield Center, 945 W 69th St., in Englewood.
The event brought holiday joy to families who have suffered devastating losses, including from gun violence. The party featured giveaways, gifts, food and music for the children and families to enjoy.
“I was really happy to see people look out for each other,” Avila said. “We’re here for another. I just heard stories of many kids that probably got shot in the streets of Illinois. So sad that happens in our own town.”
During the party, the Avilas received clothes, dolls and other toys, as well as a TV in a giveaway. One of his daughter was excited to get new joggers.
“You should have seen the joy on my daughters’ faces when they saw all the stuff,” Avila said.
Holmes said the party was able to bring a “joyful moment” to nearly 90 families. He said the majority of children in attendance have been victims of gun violence. Some have suffered from permanent disabilities from their injuries.
“We wanted to take away some of that bad feelings and pain that they’ve been going through since they’ve been shot,” Holmes said. “We just wanted to bring the whole family together to enjoy Christmas and let them know that it’s OK when they come outside, to have fun in this facility. A lot of ‘em had a lot of hugs, a lot of love and we tried to promote that.”
For other kids, they lost a parent to gun violence. Seeing the missing plate at the dinner table can feel especially devastating for families around the holiday season, he said, so his foundation created special plates imprinted with pictures of lost loved ones.
“We presented those to the families, and it was very emotional that they have this plate with their loved ones, their dad, their brothers,” Holmes said. “They can have this plate at the table all the time.”
As a victim of gun violence himself, Holmes thought of the idea of hosting a holiday party last year because he knows the pain these kids experience firsthand. He set out to create a space where children felt safe to be free and have fun.
“I know how much pain that they are going through,” Holmes said. “I sat down and I thought about it. I said, you know, these kids need to laugh. They need to smile and know somebody cares.”
With a party filled with food, music, toys and an appearance from Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Holmes said seeing the children smile and hug their loved ones brought tears to his eyes.
He also saw some of the kids and families connect with one another during the party, finding common ground through their experiences with gun violence.
“One of the young boys was asking the other one, ‘Where did you get shot at?’” Holmes said. “And he told him. They were bonding together. I don’t wish that people had to come together to bond like that because a child was shot. But since these children are victims of gun violence, we tried to enhance the quality of their life and take away their pain.”
One moment that stood out was when a young boy and his brother won two television sets in a raffle. The boy went up to Holmes and asked if they could give the second TV to someone else instead.
“We can share our TV,” the boy told Holmes.
Holmes granted the boy’s request and found another family to give the item to.
“People stood up and started clapping,” Holmes said. “I said, now these are children that have been raised to love and not hate people.”
One of the party’s attendees, Sylvia McGee, is a grandmother to seven-year-old Jamari who was injured in a shooting with his mother, Donesha Childs, in the Englewood neighborhood in August. The shooting took place on Jamari’s first day of school, she told the Tribune in a phone call.
While the family is still reeling from the attack, they were grateful for the opportunity to take part in the party and take their minds off the tragedy.
“It was beautiful,” McGee said. “It was touching. There was a lot of love in the building. We just had a blast.”
She and Jamari were able to dance with Mickey and Minnie during the party. Jamari excitedly shared how much he enjoyed the party and what he received as a gift.
“I liked it so much,” Jamari said. “I got some Hot Wheels cars! And I got a brand new TV.”
McGee hopes to see more events like this in the future to help bring together families who have faced gun violence.
“We would love to do it again,” Holmes said. “I think it can help people forget some of the heartbreak for awhile.”