Photo by Darryl Maxie
Wide receiver Harry Douglas Jr. (left) and quarterback Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons signed autographs for long lines of fans in the newer Jonesboro gymnasium. Ryan said he was pleased to support his teammate’s efforts at giving back to the community.
Kids squealed with delight, clutching toys or riding shiny new bicycles around a Jonesboro High gymnasium floor. Parents heaved visible sighs of relief, gratitude washing over their faces.
Even on one overcast Wednesday in Clayton County, whatever preparations were taking place at the North Pole took a back seat to sunshine smile-inducing operations in the South. All Santa Claus could have done was tip his furry red cap to the Douglas Brothers Foundation for a huge assist.
For the third year, the charitable outreach organization gave back to its community, in numbers larger than ever before. Thousands got presents for their kids, flu shots health screenings, haircuts, meals — all for free. The Jonesboro High products who serve as faces of the organization — pro football player Harry Douglas of the Atlanta Falcons and pro basketball player Toney Douglas of the New York Knicks — signed autographs while their parents orchestrated giving on a large scale.
It took both Jonesboro gymnasiums and then some to house the whole thing.
Some of Harry Douglas’ Falcon teammates — quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Kerry Meier among them — lent their support and also signed autographs. Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kembrough came by as did State Rep. Yasmin Neal (D-Jonesboro), who immediately put pictures up from the event on her Facebook page.
Long after they were supposed to shut down for the night, they were still giving away a gym full of goods while parents waited to hear their names over the loudspeaker.
“We’re in a position to help our community and we’re just doing it,” said Harry Douglas Sr., the players’ father and a guiding force behind the event. “A lady came up to me with eight kids and said, ‘Thank you. You’ve helped me have faith and belief back in my fellow man.’ That literally made me want to cry.”
More than 2,000 registered for the giveaway, but the foundation correctly anticipated that far more than that number would show up. Organizers estimated the crowd at 6,000 and said many of those who came were hurting.
“There’s a lot of parents struggling, asking themselves, ‘What am I going to do to make my kids have a happy Christmas?’ ” said Stephanie Douglas, the players’ mother and the foundation president.
The younger Douglas and Ryan were pleased to help any way they could.
Said Harry Jr.: “For me, personally, I grew up here, so to come back to my hometown and be able to provide for underprivileged kids ... My parents always taught me that if I’m in position to be a blessing to be a blessing.”
That was a notion seconded by Amy Bonner, the community outreach coordinator for Piedmont Hospital.
“This is exactly the kind of event we like to support,” she said.
Ryan participated for the second consecutive year.
“The biggest thing for me, first and foremost, is to support a teammate,” the quarterback said. “Not a lot of guys get to play in their hometown. Harry’s in a unique spot in that he gets to play close to home. It gives us a chance to brighten their day. I’ve been to a lot of these, but this one is one of the staples because it’s so well run. They do a good job giving back and helping out.”
The parents appreciated it, even those who hadn’t been there for very long.
“I only showed up about an hour ago,” said Greg Brightwell of Jonesboro. “Last year, I was destitute, laid off, had no money. This year, I’m not much better, but it really means a lot to the children. It helps provide a little nicer Christmas for them. For a lot of parents, this is their Christmas. It feels really good to do something for other people. Giving back to the community is a big, big thing for me and I can only imagine what it feels like. I hope next year to be able to volunteer.”
A woman, who identified herself only as “Mrs. Wright,” watched contentedly as her son got a free haircut.
“I’m sitting here, looking around, and I see smiles on different moms’ faces,” she said. “I can tell it’s a big help to a lot of people. Kids are excited. If nothing else, they have this one gift and it means a lot that they get to pick out what they want. A lot of times when you have a budget, you want to get them what they want, but you end up getting them what they need.”
Even as the event was winding down and Douglas Sr. was obviously drained, he kept pressing for more.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “There’s some ungrateful people, but we don’t let that deter us.”
Not only were they undeterred, they were already planning for what they may do for next Christmas.
“The list may triple next year,” Mrs. Douglas said. “We had outstanding adminstrative help. Without our administrative help, we couldn’t have done this.”
She is still pushing for more potential sponsors to help.
“What I’ve learned is that our adults and leaders have to get involved with career mentoring, self-esteem building and that our leaders, our business leaders, need to partner with non-profit organizations,” Mrs. Douglas said. “One organization can’t do everything, but if we all come together, we can make a positive impact.”