Santa arrives in a fire engine this year for a Calif. family

Through Newport Beach's Fire Santa program, Fire-Medic Cory Freeman and Capt. Joe Harrison are helping a mom and her kids experience the magic of Christmas

Lilly Nguyen
Daily Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — It's a Christmas miracle at the Taylor-Hill house.

Katrina Taylor-Hill said it started with a form from her daughter's school at the end of October, asking if the family needed any assistance with school or access to anything. No more than a month later did Newport Beach fire paramedic Cory Freeman and Capt. Joe Harrison arrive, promising the family after a brief interview a Christmas that hadn't been in their household for years.

"It was overwhelming," said Taylor-Hill, a single mother who is raising six children, ages 4 to 19, and has two adult children who live on their own.

"It just felt like a complete blessing," said Taylor-Hill. "It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I don't have money for Christmas. I don't have money for trees or for anything, so the fact they were going to come and help my children and get them a Christmas was just, 'Are you serious? Who does that? For real? People still do that ?' We're just thankful and so happy that people care still."

Her first husband, Pele Hill, died in a drowning accident in 2007.

"When he passed away, I just didn't know how to deal with things. I was here physically for my children, but emotionally I was gone, " said Taylor-Hill. "My older children and I ... we 've all been through a lot and we 're just trying to actually heal."

She and her family uprooted their lives in Phoenix last year. She said she left with her children in her little car in August for California, where she'd spent the majority of her childhood in and out of the foster care system between the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles.

The family lived in homeless shelters before eventually receiving housing in Newport Beach in December last year through Section 8.

They've lived in their home for about a year now, but Taylor-Hill said she's still working on herself and is trying to find work that she can do from home as she can't afford childcare.

But it's hard to find that kind of work, she said, when she doesn't have the resources or education to connect with employers.

That's where Freeman and Harrison get involved. Harrison started the Fire Santa program at the department in 2005 after being inspired at church to give back to the community and better people's lives with the resources he had.

"I thought, 'I work with people who are pretty handy. I have about 120 co-workers. If we rallied together and raised money, cooked meals, fixed homes up — whatever we needed to do," said Harrison, "then... we could provide Christmas to a family."

Harrison said he and Freeman interview nominated families through Newport Heights Elementary and pick one family each year to help. The reasons change for every family and for every year, though they try to stay in the Newport-Mesa service area.

One exception was when the department helped a woman widowed by the 2015 San Bernardino shooting and her family. Last year, the department managed to raise $21,000 for a Costa Mesa family with a disabled child and a father who lost his job during the pandemic.

The program works with families for around four to six weeks on average, providing meals, a tree, Christmas presents and fundraising money with proceeds to go directly to the family in question at the end of the year. As of Thursday, about $2,125 has been raised.

"We initiate with this idea that we 're going to help you out with Christmas, but we're really paying attention to all their needs and try to fill that out as best we can," said Harrison, adding that the reason they only pick one family every year is so they can go "all in" on the family.

Harrison said he and Freeman decided on Taylor-Hill's family after hearing her story, their situation and how she was raising her kids.

"She focuses on the negative. But I said, 'Every parent's goal is to raise our kids better than how we were raised. Where you came from, you're doing a phenomenal job for your kids.' She got them in a three-bedroom apartment. Her income's meager, but... 'You 're doing a heck of a job,'" said Harrison, adding that the apartment was spotless and described Taylor-Hill as focused on making sure her children were raised right and getting an education.

Freeman said he feels that it's in the nature of firefighters to want to help people and pay it forward where they could. He said it's nice hearing from so many people — not just from the families of firefighters but other community members — who want to help.

"I think a lot of us definitely feel we're very fortunate. I think a lot of us feel very blessed and have that desire to pay that forward and help someone else out," said Freeman.

As for the kids, Taylor-Hill said all the children are over the moon and excited to see a Christmas tree. Her four youngest, she said, haven't had a Christmas in their entire lives.

"They all want to be firefighters now. They want to grow up and help people,'" said Taylor-Hill.

"My 5-year-old, King, he says every night, 'I hope that I get what I asked for, but it's OK if I don't get what I asked for. I got to see the firefighters' house.'"

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(c)2021 the Daily Pilot (Costa Mesa, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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