Donnell Booker Jr. tore through the wrapping paper on Christmas morning, revealing a seven-inch Kindle Fire and a smile nearly as wide.
“This is my tablet,” the 8-year-old said. “My tablet. Who got me this?”
It wasn’t his mother or father, even though they were dressed as elves.
“We don’t know,” said his father, Donald Booker Sr. “It was someone very generous. That’s all we know.”
The tablet showed up one day last week after Booker’s mother, Tyshika Britten, posted a message on Craigslist saying her family of five boys and a baby girl were facing eviction from their home in Oxon Hill, Maryland. There probably wouldn’t be Christmas gifts, maybe not even a tree.
“I’m such a failure right now,” she wrote. “Please help me.”
Her message, thanks in part to a Washington Post article about her family’s troubles, went viral, generating hundreds of offers to help from around the world. Someone sent a PlayStation 4. Someone dropped off a puppy.
And someone named Eddie Vedder sent a check for $10,000.
“Is he in a band?” Britten asked.
Pearl Jam, Google told her. When the bank teller saw his name and the amount, his head dropped into his hands. The family has been watching his concerts online.
“I was just so moved by the story and what this mother did for her children,” Vedder said in an interview Sunday. “I thought those kids must be so proud of their mother for reaching out. That takes a lot of courage.”
Vedder said he saw some of his own childhood in their story.
“There were years there were toys from Santa, but they were used and they came from garage sales and they didn’t always work,” he said. Vedder knows there are complex social issues beyond the range of his check, but he wanted to provide, as he put it, “a tourniquet” to help the family gain some control and normalcy.
A Christmas with presents helps, too.
Britten watched her kids tear the wrapping off video games, shirts, remote-control cars, winter coats, science sets, Legos, footballs, basketballs, and more – arriving at all hours in dozens of UPS truck deliveries, which was a new experience for the family. They have never ordered anything online.
The elves took the packages to the basement, where they divided them up and wrapped. And wrapped.
“Oh my Jesus, oh my Jesus, oh my Jesus,” 15-year-old Vashon said, unwrapping the PlayStation.
Chase, 3, gave a play-by-play of his presents.
Opening a car, he said, “A car.” Then he dropped it.
Opening a truck, he said, “A truck.” Then he dropped it.
Morgan, his 1-year-old sister, cradled a new baby doll. Asked the baby’s name, Morgan laughed.
The puppy, named Phoenix, looked tired. Nearby, hanging on the wall, was a sticker that read, “Bless the God Before Us And the Love Between Us.”
As they unwrapped the love, Britten suspected the hate was waiting for her on social media and in messages from a GoFundMe page she set up because people were requesting a way to send cash.
Online trolls have questioned her parenting ability and demanded she “close her legs.”
A friend on Facebook offered support.
“Don’t let the devil mess with your head,” she wrote.
Others criticized Britten for exposing and embarrassing her family. But the hairdresser and Booker, her longtime boyfriend and a struggling construction worker, don’t hide their financial problems.
Anyway, it would be impossible: They’ve moved multiple times and once ran a hose to a neighbor’s home for water.
“I’m not exposing my family,” she said in front her children. “I’m exposing how a lot of people have to live. There are people all over this country who have the same problems we have. This is real life.”
Now the family is hoping this windfall – in addition to Vedder’s check, the GoFundMe page has raised nearly $18,000 – will give them, as Britten put it, “a head start” at securing a stable living situation. The landlord wants them out and is planning to visit them Tuesday, probably marking the end of their Christmas miracle.
They have dreams of buying their own home, of not living in the dark and cold in winter to conserve money for rent, of owning cars that don’t require the Lord’s Prayer to start.
They have regrets but don’t dwell on them.
“We are not perfect people,” Britten said. “We have made mistakes and that’s life, that’s what happens.”
And they think that in asking for help, and getting so much of it, they have given their children a present they can all share – a message that, no matter what, life is life and love is love.
“I am a proud mother of six,” she said. “I love my children. And I will take care of them, and I will get them what they need, any way I can.”
Torn wrapping paper was strewn everywhere. Outside, one of her sons squirted a toy fire extinguisher. The others were trying on new clothes, setting up their games, opening batteries for remote-control cars.
Britten took it all in.
“This year,” Britten said, “they got everything they wanted.”