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Staff at this Detroit school made holiday wishes come true

by Tribune News Service | January 2, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Instructional Coach Catheren Taylor counts down over the PA to celebrate Christmas with presents donated by the staff at Joy Preparatory Academy in Detroit on Dec. 16, 2021. "When we get to zero, we're going to say happy holidays and then you can open your gifts," said Taylor. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

DETROIT -- Catheren Taylor's voice boomed over the PA system at Joy Preparatory Academy on a December morning: "When we get to zero, we're going to say happy holidays and then you can open your gifts!"

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.

Masked up and in their pajamas, students in first grade ripped open their stack of gifts in a matter of seconds. Wrapping paper flew, and children cheered.

Amir Robinson, 6, got a Spider-Man bike, which he and his classmates promptly started riding down the halls.

Da-Nyiah Pace, 6, was overjoyed to get not one but two Elsa dolls.

Mikayla Watkins, 7, looked at her dollhouse and Pets Alive toy puppy with a big grin on her face.

"I had wanted these so long ... I feel so happy," Mikayla said. "I put it on my Christmas list. ... When I get home, I'm going to play with these all day."

Santa and his reindeer didn't deliver these gifts, staff and donors at Joy Preparatory Academy on Detroit's east side did. It's a tradition that's been going on for the past five or so years.

Taylor, who used to teach in the classroom but now works as an instructional coach, is one of the staff members who helps run the effort each year.

Wearing a Christmas Tree poncho just days before Christmas, Taylor explained each student at the pre-K- to eighth-grade charter school fills out a wish list including their clothing size, toys and interests, and then staff -- the principal, paraprofessionals, lunch aides, custodians and office personnel -- chip in to fulfill those wishes.

"It's not about just this one day, but just pouring into their lives. Because gifts make you feel like someone cares about you," Taylor, 40, of Farmington Hills, said.

Taylor would buy gifts for her kindergarten students for years. She realized the school principal, Adasina Philyaw, had been doing the same when she was teaching. So, they teamed up and the gift-giving has been a collaborative, schoolwide effort ever since.

There are 215 students. Each student got anywhere from three to seven gifts. That's hundreds of toys and clothes.

"You know what they say about teachers, educators -- we don't do it for the money. However, they are givers. I've been in school districts where they've had like hospitals, law firms and nonprofit organizations donate. Here, what you see is basically our staff who decided to make a financial sacrifice," said Philyaw, 45, of Detroit.

Philyaw came to the school three years ago and wanted to make sure the gifts were personalized.

First-grade teacher Briea Days and paraprofessional Conston Philyaw, along with Days' brother out in California, pitched in hundreds of dollars to collectively buy gifts for the first graders. Days, 29, of Farmington Hills, also bought pajamas for her first-graders.

This year was different in some ways. The staff wanted to give extra gifts to help the children cope with deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic and other family losses.

Parents suffered job losses even before the pandemic. Some are reeling from evictions, homelessness and house fires, Adasina Philyaw, who also is the sister-in-law of Conston Philyaw, said.

"You have a lot of parents who want the best for their children, but might not be able to do it at the time," she said.

And so, joy is welcome.

The halls of the school were decked with holiday cheer -- a Christmas tree on each floor, lights across lockers and stacks of wrapped presents in corners and on desks throughout. Holiday music filled the air.

The school is a second home for students, Taylor said.

"We are a family to them, and what do you do with your family? You give them nothing but the best," she said.

  photo  Amir Robinson, 6, of Detroit, rides the new Spider-Man bike he received from his first grade Teacher Briea Days, teacher assistant Conston Philyaw and Days' brother Darmel Moore at Joy Preparatory Academy in Detroit on Dec. 16, 2021. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS)
 
 
  photo  Da-Nyiah Pace, 6, of Detroit, jumps up and down with surprise after opening her Christmas presents, donated by her first grade teacher Briea Days 29, Farmington Hills, teacher assistant Conston Philyaw and Days' brother Darmel Moore at Joy Preparatory Academy in Detroit on Dec. 16, 2021. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS)
 
 

Print Headline: 'They are givers' Staff at this Detroit school made 
holiday wishes come true

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