People lined up outside Ashley Johnson’s West Baltimore home the evening of Dec. 29, all bearing at least one gift. To her surprise and delight, the “secret Santas”—many of them strangers—placed the gifts under her Christmas tree. The heart-warming spectacle brought the 11-year-old her first Christmas presents this year.

Ashley’s mom, Pam Johnson, was diagnosed with two forms of breast cancer last summer. Boggled down with medical bills for chemotherapy treatments and medication, she and her husband Joe Johnson could not afford presents.

When Tenyo Pearl, Mrs. Johnson’s close friend and former professor, heard the news, she made it her mission to make Christmas special for the girl. She sent text messages and e-mails detailing the situation to several friends. Word spread like wildfire, even landing on Facebook. In just three days of planning, the group decided to surprise the girl with gifts.

Over 20 people showed up, including Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton and Bea Gaddy’s daughter, Cynthia Brooks. At least 10 others contributed gifts but couldn’t make the surprise event.

“I couldn’t sleep knowing…a girl didn’t have presents under her Christmas tree,” Pearl said at the gathering. “Pam didn’t ask for help but it’s our duty.”

Mrs. Johnson told the crowd she was speechless. “I would have never expected this type of outreach,” she said. “I’m thankful to God that each of you was touched in some way to make a difference for my daughter.”

This was the first year she couldn’t afford gifts for her child, she said.

“Cancer …it drains everything, all your resources for treatments,” the 49-year-old said. She looked strong and alert, despite the intense treatments. She expects her final two bouts of chemo this month.

Mrs. Johnson first felt a lump in her breast last spring. She initially wrote it off as a hormonal imbalance, but after two months, she decided to get checked out. Her doctors discovered cancer in two sections of her breast and ordered a lumpectomy in September. Now she is undergoing chemo as a precaution to ensure the cancer does not spread, she said.

Her insurance didn’t cover the surgery. She had to stop working as director of the local Boys and Girls Club, but remains ineligible for unemployment benefits because of a filing technicality.

“I’m basically without income right now,” she said.

Her husband increased his work hours at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, but the family struggles without the additional income.

Mr. Johnson estimates they owe around $10,000.

“One of her medications is $125, and we have to get that every three weeks,” he explained. After reconstructive surgery and the 10 years worth of pills his wife will need to recover, he expects it will cost about $25,000.

It makes his “heart warm” to know the community is so giving, he says, especially for a woman so giving.

“That’s my heart,” he said of his wife of nine years. “I can’t lose her. It took me too long to find her.”

Ashley started middle school at Windsor Hill Elementary/ Middle in the midst of her mom’s surgery and still managed to make honor roll.

The pre-teen told the {AFRO} it’s “sad and hard” to watch her mother go through chemotherapy but “it feels good” to have a special Christmas this year.
She received clothes, games, cards and even food.

“This is what the holiday season is all about,” Middleton said. Along with a gift, she brought Mrs. Johnson a list of government aid options. She said her younger sister is a cancer survivor.

Pearl, who was one of Mrs. Johnson’s instructors at Coppin State University, said, “You want to make sure they not only have a degree but they have support. I didn’t have money to buy all this but I had this,” she said raising her cell phone, “and it multiplied 100 times.”

Mrs. Johnson said her family received more than material items that night.

“It’s not even about the gifts,” she said. “It’s the outpouring of love and concern from people.”

All cancer patients should experience this love, she added. She wants to create a breast cancer support group that especially targets African-American women.

“Black women don’t talk about it,” she noted. “We aren’t as open…Even this 11 year old,” she said, pointing to her daughter, “I have to start teaching her to take care of herself.”

“I know I can’t save the world but if I can help another woman, even if it’s an 11-year-old going through this process…it will be worth it.”

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO