Picture this . . . You glance out your window to find sirens blaring, Christmas music pumping, and dozens of smiling elves in Donté’s Express t-shirts and Santa hats filling your street. East Cleveland Police, the Shaw High School basketball team, and lines of cars follow close behind. Opening your door, you’re greeted by a smiling elf, laden with gifts. The elf delivers a handwritten card and a family board game wrapped in festive paper, just for you. At first guess, you might think a holiday movie about a Christmas parade is being filmed in your neighborhood, but actually, you’ve just become a part of the Donté Gibbs’ Gift Express.
In 2012, Gibbs, an East Cleveland resident and Shaw High School graduate, joined with friends and fellow alumni India Moore, Dominique Tucker, and Seretha Etheridge to do “something for our city for Christmas,” shares Gibbs, adding, “Families are one of our greatest assets in East Cleveland, and with us being raised in East Cleveland, we understood how tough the holidays can be.”
It didn’t take long for the talented crew to come up with the idea of surprising people in their neighborhood with gifts to enjoy together. Donté’s Gift Express was born. The initial goal in 2012 was to deliver 100 gifts, and they nearly achieved it, delivering 89. Last year, their biggest year yet, the GIft Express delivered 518 gifts. Altogether, they have delivered 1,536 gifts, and they hope to gift 600 more in 2019, their seventh year in operation.
In order to continue surprising residents each year, the Secret Santas at Donté’s Gift Express pick 10 to 12 random streets throughout East Cleveland, transforming them with a Christmas gift-giving parade. “By surprising families and reconnecting with old friends, previous teachers, and more,” Gibbs explains, they “make statements to folks that we care and we’re here, together.”
Donté’s GIft Express is made possible by donations, grants, and help from a handful of neighborhood organizations. For the 2019 Christmas season, they received grants from Neighborhood Connections and the Awesome Foundation of Cleveland. One generous sponsor this year is Manna Food From Heaven. Also, The East Cleveland Salvation Army hosts the gift wrapping event, and Bite Creole Kitchen will sponsor a volunteer meal post-gift delivery on December 21.
None of this would be possible without the dedicated volunteers who make a tradition of shopping for, wrapping, and delivering Donté’s Gift Express gifts. According to Gibbs, volunteers reach out as early as August to remind him to keep them “in the loop” because they’re eager to help. The Shaw High School basketball team helps with delivery each year, which allows the group to quickly fan out through many streets, maintaining the element of Christmas surprise.
The Express team also goes one step further each year, gifting at least one family (and sometimes more than one) with the Betty Ruth Fellows Family Gift, named after Gibbs’ late grandmother, who was instrumental in encouraging him to start the GIft Express. Greater Cleveland area residents are encouraged to nominate themselves and/or families within Cuyahoga County who may need additional assistance during the holidays (moving, holiday dinner, etc). Nominations can be made here. The team reviews nominations and decides who they are able to assist, based on need and available funds.
Gibbs and his team say that they are “blessed to be a blessing.” It’s no surprise that Christmas is Gibbs’ favorite time of year. “Growing up in East Cleveland, you learned that you have two hands for a reason; one is for helping yourself, and the second is for helping others,” he says. Clearly, he’s been busy with both hands and his heart.
For information about how to donate, visit Donté’s Gift Express.