NBA stars give Christmas toys and hope to show that 'somebody cares' for children

Story by John Iwasaki / Photos by Laura Reinhardt and Reed Slattery and courtesy of Drew Ruiz
Video courtesy of L.A. Clippers TV

As snow turned to slush outside the Garfield Community Center in Seattle, Alexandra and her three youngest children warmed up inside—physically and emotionally.

Jamal Crawford Christmas Toy Giveaway Event | World Vision Jamal Crawford (left) of the Los Angeles Clippers gives back to children in need with his "Jamal Claus" toy distribution. Click image to view...

The mother lost her job earlier in 2013. Christmas loomed in five days.

"This year is really hard for me," Alexandra says. "It's the first year I don't have anything under my tree."

But by attending a toy distribution sponsored by former NBA star Brandon Roy that evening, Alexandra's family experienced hope. Her children filled bags with presents—everything from books and games to stuffed animals and color markers—before sitting down to plates of pizza or lasagne.

"I feel happy because you guys donated so kids can have presents," says Melanie, 8, one of Alexandra's daughters, as she held a stuffed ladybug. "And I'm thankful for it."

A volunteer offers Alexandra, 2, a stuffed bear at a toy distribution sponsored by Brandon Roy while her mom, Alexandra Sarmiento, watches.

The giveaway of toys and family food kits was one of three pre-Christmas distributions sponsored by pro basketball players with Seattle-area connections in partnership with World Vision. The other events involved Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers and Isaiah Thomas of the Sacramento Kings.

The players passed out toys, signed autographs, posed for photos, and brought smiles to children's faces. Together, the distributions in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Tacoma, Washington, served more than 1,000 boys and girls, says Reed Slattery, manager of World Vision's field site in Fife, Washington.

Alexandra makes tamales and sells them to businesses for their company events. Her children "know I sell food," she says. "They say, 'Don't worry, Mom.' They only want to be together."

Nevaeh, 8, wanted stuffed bears because "they're nice and they're sweet. They don't give you bad dreams."

Brandi Cruell grew up in Seattle's Garfield neighborhood, where Roy went to high school before starring at the University of Washington and the Portland Trail Blazers. She often volunteers at the community center and knows the need of local families.

Having Roy partner with World Vision to give back to his community means more than Christmas toys.

"It's hope," Brandi says. "Somebody cares. In this community, there's a lot of misfortune. It's not just the gifts. It's hope. It's faith. It's love. Even if we can't do anything else, at least we can give them a smile to let them know that it's not always bad."

South of Los Angeles, Seattle native Crawford held his annual "Jamal Claus" toy giveaway at the Barack Obama Charter School in Compton.

The children who attended the event, held in partnership with World Vision and Elite Youth Camps, "may not have an opportunity to have the best Christmas, so we try to make their dreams come true," Crawford tells SLAM, the online basketball magazine.

Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers brought toys and joy to Amer'e, Mi'Joi, and Sy'Nai and their young friend.

"A lot of kids see people on TV and that's the only place they see them. It makes it more real if you're interacting with them—even if it's for a short amount of time—[because it helps them] believe their dreams can become a reality. I remember being one of those kids, so I know how important it feels to give back and interact with them. I remember being around pro athletes as a kid; some were cool, some were not so cool. So I said if I was ever in that position, I know how I'd want to be."

Weeks after the recent Los Angeles event, Anthony Gil, office coordinator for the Barack Obama Charter School, marveled at the impact of the evening.

"Folks are still talking about how great everything was from the raffles to the toys, food kits, and being able to meet a pro basketball player like [Crawford] in person," Gil says. "I think our students left that day with more than just toys, but memories that will last a lifetime."

Phillip receives an autographed basketball from Isaiah Thomas of the Sacramento Kings.

In the third holiday toy and clothes distribution, World Vision partnered with Thomas in his native Tacoma at the Al Davies Boys and Girls Club for a Christmas Eve giveaway.

Thomas "really cares about his neighborhood and the kids," Slattery says. "He will usually have his whole family out with him, giving back to the community. This time was no different." Along with Thomas' wife and one of their young sons, the player's parents helped out at the distribution and hung out with the Tacoma community.

Back in Seattle at Roy's distribution, Brandi's daughter, Nevaeh, clutched two stuffed bears and smiled.

"I'm happy that we had this day," the 8-year-old girl says, "and I hope it will never end."

Brandi Cruell, with daughter Sydney, 2, says the toy distribution means more than the gifts: "It's hope. It's faith. It's love."

Brandon Roy (left), former Portland Trail Blazer star, sponsored a toy distribution in Seattle.