WASHINGTON PARK — A donation drive, which for years has helped the mother of a South Side man killed by police turn her grief into community action, is collecting toys and winter wear for Chicago kids.
The ninth annual RonnieMan Holiday Toy Drive is underway, founder Dorothy Holmes said. She started the drive during the 2014 holiday season — just a couple months after Chicago police officer George Hernandez killed her 25-year-old son, Ronald “RonnieMan” Johnson III.
“By [Johnson] not being here anymore to get his birthday gifts and Christmas gifts, I came up with the idea of helping some kids in need,” Holmes said. “I’d rather do work in the community, which would involve helping other families in the struggle that can’t get their kids anything for Christmas.”
Toys of all types — from Tickle Me Elmos and sensory toys for kids with autism to mini-basketball hoops and remote-controlled cars — are requested.
This year, Holmes is also accepting gift cards for the first time. Some eighth-graders last year “were looking at me like, ‘We’re too big for toys,'” before Holmes talked them into taking some for their younger loved ones, she said.
Unwrapped gifts can be dropped off at five locations:
- Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, 6353 S. Cottage Grove Ave. in Woodlawn.
- Chicago Torture Justice Center, 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave. in Woodlawn.
- Haymarket House, 800 W. Buena Ave. in Uptown.
- 1917 W. Berenice Ave. in North Center.
- 5757 N. Ridge Ave. in Edgewater.
Holmes is still working with local schools and community organizations to finalize giveaway locations. She hopes to bring in enough gifts to start the giveaways on the South Side, head over east, then travel to the West and North sides, she said.
Two celebrations will also take place in the days around Dec. 14, which would have been Johnson’s 35th birthday.
Haymarket House will also host a donation party Dec. 9, where attendees can donate gifts to the drive and enjoy hot cocoa, games, holiday crafts and other activities.
A Justice For All Sneaker Ball will be held Dec. 16 in support of families who have lost loved ones to police violence. Its location is still to be determined, but Holmes is considering the Grand Ballroom in Woodlawn, she said.
All money raised will go toward toys, winter clothing, food and rental fees for the Justice for All Sneaker Ball, Holmes said.
Hernandez killed Johnson Oct. 12, 2014, as Johnson ran from police responding to calls of shots fired, according to prosecutors.
Hernandez fired the fatal shots within seconds of exiting his car as Johnson ran toward Washington Park with his back to the officers, the Tribune reported.
Holmes filed a Freedom of Information Act request to release footage of the shooting. Officials in former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration worked for about a year to block the video’s release — as they did in the case of Laquan McDonald, who was murdered just eight days after Johnson’s killing.
The trauma of her son’s killing, and the legal battles and push for accountability that followed, pushed Holmes into depression. But it also spurred her into action and gave her a chance to share her experience with police violence as she helped others, she said.
Aside from the donation drive, Holmes organizes Easter giveaways near where her son was killed at 53rd Street and King Drive, and she has helped maintain a food box near 51st Street and Calumet Avenue for nonperishable goods.
“That’s what made me want to get out here and get involved [with the holiday toy drive], and then let people know the reason why I’m doing it,” Holmes said. “This is what was on my heart to do, instead of me sitting around losing my mind.”
Many people knew Johnson as RonnieMan, but those closest to him knew he also moonlighted as the Dog Man, Holmes said. He would “collect” stray dogs and care for them as a teenager, and he continued to do so through adulthood, she said.
“It’s a lot of good memories of him. He loved his kids, he loved his nieces, he loved his nephews, he loved helping the elderly people in the neighborhood,” Holmes said. “It’s like he’s missed by everybody. Everybody that knew him, they miss him.”
Johnson’s five kids, now aged 10 to 16, help out with the holiday toy drive and other community work when they’re not in school. They frequently speak of their father and their memories of him, but also face bullying from schoolmates who make light of his death, Holmes said.
Once the holiday toy drive wraps up and the new year arrives, Holmes hopes to shift focus and plan a much-needed family vacation, she said.
The trip she has in mind could send Johnson’s sports-loving kids over the moon with joy, but Holmes doesn’t want to spoil the surprise and publicize her idea just yet, she said.
“This year made nine years [since Johnson’s death], and it’s been a rollercoaster,” Holmes said. “… I know [the kids] probably need a vacation, because I be needing me a vacation.”
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