More children and families in need this season. Some are fans of a particular N.E. Patriot
PROVIDENCE – Janay Wilcox's Christmastime pregnancy was a much-needed blessing.
The anticipation helped her and her partner stay on course as they struggled with a collection of severe difficulties in their personal lives.
They had come to believe that their unborn child was saving them.
The boy took his first breath two days after Christmas 2017 at Women & Infants Hospital. They named him Savior.
"We chose that name because that's what he's been for us," says the child's 35-year-old mother. "He's been our savior in life."
Almost five years later, Wilcox and her partner, Savior's father, Daniel Perez, are engaged to be married.
They are raising the boy in a home in the Charles neighborhood, near the North Providence line. Savior has six siblings, they say.
Life remains challenging: The parents don't delve into the details, but they're humble enough to receive assistance from people who can help.
This is why Savior and his parents were among dozens of families at the Providence Children's Museum for a special holiday event on Tuesday.
The weeknight setting was no accident: Tuesday is frequently a day off for the New England Patriots.
While Savior played with oversized blocks, the Pats' No. 85, Hunter Henry, took off his coat in a nearby reception room.
The tables around the towering professional athlete teemed with presents. Henry and his wife, Parker, waited to meet each of the children. including Savior.
More families facing major crises
The holiday gift-giving event was hosted by an organization that has seen some alarming trends as it has tried to help local children in recent years.
Communities for People provides support to youth in foster care. It also helps families like Savior's – mothers and fathers and children who would benefit from some help.
Sometimes, such help can keep a child from ending up in foster care. Helping families and children long before a situation becomes that serious is one of the program's goals. That goal entails an inclusive approach.
Eric Gaboriault, who directs Communities' Rhode Island programs, says the "only criteria" for a family to enter the organization's programs is the presence of a child under 18.
Communities For People, which also operates in Massachusetts, has been in Rhode Island for decades.
In the past, says Gaboriault, only three or four families out of a dozen served faced the most serious of crises. In 2022, he says, about 75% of the families are dealing with major crises, such as homelessness.
The surging needs of the families coincided with the both the recent pandemic and the housing crisis, he says.
Many parents lost an important source of daycare for their children.
Many children were stranded not only from the classroom but from important friendships and social development, says Communities' chief executive officer, Craig Gordon.
"COVID brought enormous pressure that none of us was prepared for," Gordon says.
Earlier this year, he says, Communities began to think about holding its first holiday gift-giving event in Rhode Island. The museum and Shaw's and Star Market were sponsors.
At that point, Communities staffers knew who they wanted for the job of handing out the presents.
Hunter Henry on track for a life of football
Hunter Henry was a December baby, too: He was only a few hours away from his 28th birthday on Tuesday night as he waited to give out presents.
He was born on Dec. 7, 1994, in Little Rock, Arkansas – the 52nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
He spent much of his childhood in an area just outside Atlanta, Georgia. He and his brothers played football. And when it was time for high school, he was back in Arkansas.
He attended Pulaski Academy and played for coach Kevin Kelley, who was admired by Patriots' coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick has said he saw video of Henry when he was still in high school.
Henry was on track to play tight end at a high level. And his high school years coincided with a special era for tight ends in New England history.
The Patriots offense leaned on two dazzling players in the position.
One, Rob Gronkowski, was destined for football accomplishments and stardom on the grandest of scale.
The other, Aaron Hernandez, had come from a troubled family setting.
Even as an NFL standout, Hernandez was destined for the type of trouble that Communities for People strives to head off.
Hunter Henry's Decembers were full of love and presents: birthday presents and Christmas presents. This is one of his favorite times of the year, he says.
His football path was inspired by his Christian faith.
It would lead from state championships to NCAA and NFL accolades to huge contracts. It also led to marriage and fatherhood and some public service, too.
"We all have a circle of influence in some aspect," Henry says. "Everybody's circle of influence is different. Maybe someone's is bigger, maybe smaller. But why not make an impact on the people around you in a positive way?"
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Bring joy and happiness, and then do it for someone else
Gordon says Communities For People became familiar with Henry over the last year.
The staff noticed how he interacted with young people at an event in Dorchester and again at a pumpkin carving event at Halloween. One kid carved a pumpkin into a football helmet in his presence.
On Tuesday night in Providence, Henry was in the very final hours of his 27th year.
Dozens of children and their parents sang "Happy Birthday" to him.
"Hopefully we can bring some joy and happiness and bring a smile to you …" Henry told them. "And when we do that, hopefully you guys can do that for someone else. That's what it's always about. Continue to pass it along."
The children approached Henry with their parents and guardians.
Some of them said they could tell from the size and weight of the packages that they were receiving what they had wished for.
Henry bent down to greet them eye to eye, and posed for pictures.
It took him about an hour to distribute the presents to about 50 children.
Savior was one of the last children to enter the reception hall for his presents.
He rode in on his father's shoulders, which meant no bending for Henry.
Soon they were high-fiving.
Henry's wife, Parker, was impressed with the boy's vigor.
"Merry Christmas," said Henry.
Later, he was willing to reflect a bit on one couple's decision to name their child Savior.
"I think it's really cool," he said.
"That word is super special to me," he said, "because that's what I base my life around. … My savior and my faith, which is in Christ. I think it's really cool that he was able to kind of be that for them. Just that that kid could enter their life and be a difference-maker."
In a corner nearby, Savior uncovered the wrapping paper to find a bow that shoots arrows with safe tips.
He received a book to help him write the letters he's learning about in school.
And a kite.
He's never flown a kite.
"He's going to learn," said his father.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: N.E. Patriots Hunter Henry hands off holiday gifts to children in RI