Leon Johnson
ECU senior Leon Johnson welcomes attendees at a holiday party and gift exchange for children from the Boys and Girls Club, Little Willie Center and Operation Sunshine. His project ensured about 100 children received at least one present on their Christmas wish list. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

ECU senior, students help make Christmas wishes come true

Dec. 9, 2015

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

About 100 Greenville children saw their Christmas wishes come true Dec. 8 thanks to the generosity of East Carolina University students.

ECU senior Leon Johnson, founder of Giving Grace: Make a Christmas, and dozens of other students hosted a holiday party and gift exchange for children from the Boys and Girls Club, Little Willie Center and Operation Sunshine in Mendenhall Student Center on Tuesday.

One of those kids was 10-year-old Taeron Frank, who tore open a WWE wresting championship belt, WWE superstar fight ring and gladiator set. It was just what Taeron, who watches wrestling with his grandfather, wanted. “I’m going to put on my belt,” he said.

Taeron Frank
Taeron Frank struggles to carry the gifts he received as part of Giving Grace: Make a Christmas on Dec. 8.
Through the Giving Grace organization, ECU students adopted underprivileged children in Greenville to make sure they received at least one present on their Christmas wish list.

Johnson gathered support through social media and partnered with the Student Government Association, Black Student Union, Greek Life, Residence Hall Association and ECU Ambassadors.

A special visitor, Mrs. Claus, kicked off the night with the children dancing the Whip/Nae Nae before reminding them “It’s not about the gift, it’s about the love. Share it around.”

Giving Grace is named for Johnson’s grandmother, who died last year. The idea for creating the organization came to Johnson in a dream shortly after her death. In its first year in 2014, Giving Grace was able to help about 70 children.

“I think this is great what he’s doing,” said 15-year-old Khyrie Williams, a sophomore at D.H. Conley High School. “He should continue to follow his dreams.”

Johnson is a longtime volunteer at the Little Willie Center, founded by Renee Arrington, who was recognized at the event. “I’ve been a partner with ECU for 29-plus years. Without the ECU students, it would be hard to continue. They help me with tutoring on a day-to-day basis,” Arrington said.

“It’s phenomenal how they think of the center so often, because there are so many organizations they could support,” said Jennifer Roberson, who serves on the Little Willie Center Board of Directors. “It’s a great blessing.”

ECU Ambassadors’ Philanthropy Committee asked student groups to help and HOSA, Alpha Kappa Psi, MUVE (Motivating and Uplifting via Exercise) and WOMAN (Woman Organization for Minorities Achieving Now) responded, decorating Christmas trees to give to families in need. “We’re an organization built around service as our mission, on and off campus,” said Derek Fuller, president of the Ambassadors. “The organizations wanted to be involved in this event and make the trees to donate to the different families.”

It’s part of ECU’s mission to give back to the community, Johnson said. “We want the kids to see a college student be involved and get in their mindset that they can go to college and give back too,” he said.

“I feel like it’s such a great program, and to see the smiles on the kids’ faces,” said Keira Harris, a senior finance major in the College of Business. “It’s not just about the gifts, but sharing and fellowship for the Christmas season.”

ECU senior Daniel Spellman has been involved with Giving Grace since it started. He first met Johnson while both were working at a retail store near campus; they ended up roommates. “Most college students want to get involved but they don’t know how,” Spellman said. “This gives them a way.”

Johnson, originally from Fayetteville, will graduate Dec. 18 with a degree in public health studies in the College of Health and Human Performance. He plans to attend graduate school with a focus on health care marketing.