By Curt Yeomans
Eshanti Hessaway, 5, already had a name for her new female baby doll within minutes of receiving it on Dec. 21 - Little Eshanti.
Hessaway's new doll came with a diaper bag, pacifiers and a formula bottle. She was so happy to receive the doll that she showed Little Eshanti to anyone who would take a look.
"I'm going to play with her, and feed her and give her baths," Hessaway said of her doll. This is my baby. I'm going to take very good care of her."
Every year, for the last four years, members of the Fort Gillem-based First United States Army have brought toys, such as dolls, miniature cars and bicycles to the 527 students at nearby Fountain Elementary School. The soldiers, and employees of Fort Gillem pick the name of one student and purchase the gift that child has asked for. The presents are then delivered by soldiers, and volunteers on the Friday before Christmas.
The project began when a soldier in the First Army suggested to his commanders the division partner with a local school as a way to give back to the Forest Park community. Gayle Johnson, the community relations coordinator, chose Fountain Elementary, because she was friends with Tonya Williams, the school's principal.
The Christmas project began with one pre-kindergarten class, and has grown every year since then. The First Army provided toys for every student in a grade level the following year, and provided toys for every student at the school last year. This year, Johnson expanded the program again by getting the Stockbridge-based Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club of Georgia to collect new hats, coats, scarves, gloves and shoes for 25 disadvantaged students at the school.
"Every year, Gayle surprises me," Williams said. "I'm always wondering what she is going to do next."
Johnson, and several of the soldiers who delivered presents, said the best part about the annual event is seeing the smiling faces on the children as they tear through the wrapping paper, and express joy as they see that they got the one toy they wanted more than anything else.
"Everybody who knows me, knows how important these students at Fountain are to me," Johnson said. "The First Army likes to help out where we see a need in the community."
Johnson said she frequently had to report to First Army Commanding Officer Russel L. Honoré, and his wife, Beverly, about how many toys had been collected for the project. Like any mission on the battlefield, Honoré wanted to make sure his soldiers completed what they started.
"He kept asking me 'How many more children do we need gifts for? Are we going to make it?'" Johnson said. "Our employees are so generous. It's amazing how they dig deep in their pockets to provide a Christmas present for each of these students. For some of these children, this may be the only present they get for Christmas."
Sgt. Carol White said the soldiers completely support the program because it gives them an opportunity to connect with the community they live and work in, as well as make a difference in the lives of the children.
"We make sure we leave no one without a gift," White said. "We want to see every child get a present," she added.
Sgt. Maj. Teresa Roman added, "It feels awesome to do it and know you're making a difference in the community. It gets more fun every year as it gets bigger and bigger."
Maj. Sandra Washington said the soldiers, particularly those with children, try to personalize the gifts they buy for Fountain Elementary School students.
"We try to pick toys we would want to give our own children," Washington said.
Jahseelah Williams, 4, a pre-kindergarten student at the school, received a Cabbage Patch Kids Magic Glow Surprise doll, which has blonde hair, with pink highlights in two ponytails pointing off to the left and right sides of her head. She proudly displayed her new doll as she talked about why it made her happy.
"She's beautiful, and exactly what I asked for," Williams said. "I've wanted a doll like her since I saw one in a store."