FLORISSANT • Nine-year-old G’niya Price was the first of her siblings to rise before daylight on Christmas morning, her bed-head hair and shorts-over-pajama-bottoms ensemble indications of her rush to the tree.
G’niya began tearing into presents while older brother Jeron Hamilton, 11, and younger sister Kodi Price, 6, gathered around and joined in. Their mom, Scheriece Swinney, kept them from eating every candy cane they uncovered.
The gifts — toys, playing cards, board games, Disney dolls, books, clothes, crayons, linens and more — all were donated by Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. The insurance brokerage adopted Swinney’s family as part of the 100 Neediest Cases campaign run by the United Way and the Post-Dispatch.
“Mom, look! Dream Lites!” Kodi said with glee as she unwrapped a stuffed bear that emits rainbow-colored lights.
Jeron already had taken a new Wilson basketball out of its packaging and was planning a trip to Granny’s house to shoot hoops.
“‘Henry and Beezus’!” G’niya yelped when she opened a box of books containing the Beverly Cleary children’s classic. “I’m going to read this today.”
Swinney, 30, a single mother who works at Lowe’s and attends nursing school, said her kids’ Christmas had been shaping up to be a stark one in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
“I had to spend all of my extra money — $2,500 — on a used car so I could keep getting to work,” she said. “After that, there was nothing left for Christmas presents.
“I told myself if I could just get each one of them one thing they wanted, they would understand. But I wasn’t sure if I could even do that.”
Tragedy has befallen Swinney on two occasions.
Jeron’s father, also Jeron Hamilton, was fatally shot in December 2001 while standing on a St. Louis sidewalk a block from his home. He was 19, and Swinney, also 19 at the time, was 11 days from delivering their baby boy. (Hamilton’s killer was convicted of murder in 2003 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.)
In 2008, G’niya’s and Kodi’s father died from an illness, Swinney said.
“It’s taken me some time to get back on my feet,” she said. “There have been lots of moments when I’ve asked myself, ‘Why is this happening to me?’
“If I didn’t have kids, I don’t know how I’d get through it. They’re what keeps me strong, keeps me going.”
A Gallagher representative contacted the Youth and Family Center, a downtown agency that has assisted Swinney and her children with after-school programs and other services for the past three years. The center had supplied Gallagher and other area companies with the stories of clients who were part of this year’s 100 Neediest campaign.
Now in its 90th year, the campaign will help nearly 13,000 families this year — about 28,560 people.
The Post-Dispatch profiled 100 of those families between Nov. 11 and Dec. 21 (Swinney’s was not one of the cases covered in the paper).
As part of the campaign, readers can choose to adopt specific families or donate to a general fund. Every family will receive something, and every dollar goes to a needy family. More than $1.2 million was donated in last year’s campaign.
“I’d say this is one of the more successful stories we’ve come across,” said Sameta Carpenter, Swinney’s Youth and Family Center caseworker. She said it took Swinney two trips to haul home all of the presents donated by Gallagher.
“We have some people we work with who have been through really hard things, and Scheriece is one of them,” Carpenter said. “She should be a role model for all young females with kids. She is proof that things can work out, especially if you put in hard work and a good attitude.”
Swinney’s children were all smiles after the gifts were unwrapped Tuesday. And they were grateful.
“Everything,” G’niya said when asked to pick her favorite present.
“Yeah, everything,” her little sister echoed. “I like it all.”
Their mother, taking a moment from picking wrapping paper off the floor and untangling a Cinderella doll’s hair, said she’d like a chance to personally thank the people who made her family’s Christmas so special.
“I have cards to write to them, but I don’t know how to really express that what they did means so much to me,” Swinney said. “I just want to say thanks to everyone who helped.”