|Photo by Eliot Kamenitz, New Orleans Advocate|
On a back street in the Riverbend, a turquoise van pulled up on a corner where a building once planned as a youth center was now boarded up. Two teenagers jumped out and opened the back doors of the van while a pickup truck parked kitty-corner, loaded with fir trees.
Then a man dressed in athletic wear approached a young couple with a 3-year-old, handing them a tiny Christmas tree.
“It is wonderful,” Iriane Williams said of the unexpected gift. It would be the little girl’s first Christmas tree.
Cheryl Shaw rushed out of her house to collect a tree. Most years, somebody alerts neighbors that the trees have arrived. Then, everyone runs outside.
“They be gone, right like that,” Shaw said with a huge smile.
Brothers Aiden and Ashton Harris jogged down the street to knock on the front door of an older woman who likes a tree.
“You never realize how much a Christmas tree means,” Aiden Harris said.
After Hurricane Katrina, their father, Chad Harris, owner of The Garden Gates, a Metairie garden and interior design store, had unsold fir trees. Other merchants told him leftover trees went into the dumpster, but Harris would not waste them.
He and his wife Beth wanted to do something for people living nearby. He has driven through this neighborhood on the way to work for 20 years and sometimes stopped to chat. They’ve given away trees almost every year since.
In 2012, Garden Gates ran out of trees and there were none to give away. So, this season, they ordered extra, Beth Harris said.
“For a long time, I used to do it so nobody knew who I was,” Harris recalled. He left trees sitting on the sidewalk.
“You are the one been doing it all these years?” Derrek Bush said throwing a tree over his shoulder. “I really appreciate y’all.”
Now that the boys are older, Harris wants them involved in the giving experience. The family distributed 30 trees that day and the boys returned by themselves two more times. Neighbors brought out cups of hot chocolate.
“Everybody just pick them up so the whole neighborhood can have a real Christmas,” said Dennis Hudson who also got a tree two years ago.
Chad Harris buys Frasier firs grown in Sandy Creek, N.C. His business profits from flocking, delivering and putting Christmas trees in more affluent homes. Garden Gates will even hang the ornaments.
“This is way more fun,” Aiden Harris said about the tree giveaway.
Chad’s mother taught him to always give more than he takes.
“Even on my worst day, I am so much more fortunate than somebody else,” he reflected.
A little boy stopped on his way home from school, so Ashton Harris grabbed a 5-foot tree to carry home.
Across the street, Fernando Hernandez stopped his truck and smiled inquiringly. Though he has three children, Hernandez had not planned to buy a tree, yet eagerly accepted one gratis.
The Harris family believes they get more enjoyment giving away trees than the recipients do getting them.
“I believe 95 percent of people would buy the trees and give them away if they could see the looks on people’s faces,” Chad Harris said.
“I wish that I could figure out how to do this for a living. It feels so good to come out here and give away a tree.”
Twenty minutes after they arrived, the trees were all gone.
“Thank you, baby! God bless you,” a woman called, driving away, a fresh Christmas tree in the back seat.
This story first appeared in the New Orleans Advocate.