Ella Mae Potter brings toys to children at the Justice Center

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

The waiting room for the Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse is a cold, gray, intimidating place with metal detectors and people wearing dark uniforms. Imagine what it must be like for children waiting to visit a parent or loved one.

But on Friday, Dec. 18 Ella Mae Potter showed up wearing a bright red sweater and bringing with her toys, dolls and cookies for her annual “Christmas Miracle with Grandma Potter” event.

The waiting room was filled with women and children. When the news came that each child in the room was getting a toy for Christmas, the mothers smiled with disbelief and lined up as eagerly as the children they brought with them.

Lachrishia Massard was the first through the door with her daughter Delashia, two. As Massard spoke with some of the volunteers, Delashia peeked around the doorway with wide eyes and big round cheeks.

Zipped up in a silver snowsuit, she swished her way over to the table of toys and picked up a Barbie doll. Then she picked up another. In the end, she settled on a spiral doodle drawing set.

Massard said she’ll wrap it and put it under the tree.

“This time of year, everyone’s tight,” Massard said. “It makes me happy to know that somebody out there does care.”

Massard said she comes to the Justice Center about three times a week to visit Delashia’s father. She’s trying to make the best of this Christmas now that Delashia is getting old enough to help decorate the tree and understand Santa.

But a difficult Christmas was made even harder when Massard was recently laid off from her job.

Settling the bag around Delashia’s new toy, Massard nodded. “Everything makes a difference,” she said.

Veronica Kearse also knows how difficult it can be to have a family member in prison over the holidays.

“My son is incarcerated,” she said. “He has four kids, and this is a hard time for the kids.”

She said she knows, too, what it’s like for the mothers visiting loved ones. “I know they want the visit to be peaceful,” she said, “and I know that getting a present might be a little bit of help to keep the kids happy.”

Kearse hadn’t met Ella Mae Potter before, but she’d heard that presents were being given away and decided to come down and help hand out toys even though she’d only gotten out of work at 4:30 a.m.

“I figured I’d do something to give back,” Kearse said.

This is the third year Ella Mae has come to the justice center with gifts for the children. For the three or four years before that, she gave the presents away at Gethsemane Garden, the neighborhood garden she created in the city’s southside.

The event was sponsored by the Citizens for a Crime Free Community, which Ella Mae runs with her daughter Robin Potter-Butler. Presents were donated from the Southwest Community Center, PEACE Inc., Headstart, Price Chopper and a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Potter-Butler said the present give-away came from the need to respond to the anguish caused by shootings in Ella Mae’s southside neighborhood. In particular, Potter-Butler said, the event stems from the shooting of a 10 year-old boy whose birthday is on Christmas Eve.

That’s also Ella Mae’s birthday.

“I’m a Christmas angel,” she said, laughing. “Can’t you see that?”

Potter-Butler said this year’s present give-away was in memory of Imani Jennings, the 20 month-old baby killed Nov. 21, 2008, by the boyfriend of her mother, Cherron Patterson, 18. Patterson is pregnant and is being held in the Justice Center.

Potter-Butler said this kind of violence tears families apart. “And unfortunately there are so many families who have a loved one who is incarcerated,” she said.

Father John Schopfer of the Brady Faith Center and Pastor James Fiato of the Cornerstone Wesleyan Church were on hand for those who wanted to pray.

“Christmas is particularly hard for those that are incarcerated,” Father Schopfer said. “Families are separated right from the start, and resources that were once there are not there anymore.”

He said that while no one can make up for a family being apart at Christmas, kind acts like this can remind families that there is still love in the world.

“We can’t dispell all hopelessness, but at least we can do something to help,” he said.

Potter-Butler pointed to a baby girl hugging a new stuffed dog. “This is what the season is all about. The spirit of Christmas is giving. Her daddy may not be able to give a gift. Their lives are interrupted,” she said.

Ella Mae nodded. “It’s all about love,” she said. “And love is what? Jesus is love.”

It’s apparent that Ella Mae’s mission to spread a sense of love and appreciation is not just limited to Christmastime. Lynneisha Watson, 22, was there to help hand out toys and cookies. Shy and quiet, Watson broke into a huge smile when Ella Mae walked over and pointed to her.

“I adopted her,” Ella Mae said, laughing. “And I call her ‘Pretty Eyes.’ You can see why.” At this, Watson crumples with happy embarrassment.

Potter’s grandson, Mahdi, 24, was also there to help hand out toys and cookies. He said his grandmother inspired him to come down and help out. “I came to support my grandmother and help out kids that need presents that don’t have any right now,” he said.

In the distance, Ella Mae was laughing and talking about Jesus as mothers and babies milled around her.

Mahdi Potter smiled. “Just another day with Grandma.”

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