Surrounded by his extended family in Newark's North Ward, Felix Perez fled one home in Puerto Rico to come back to his native city in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
For Perez, the confusion of his life following the storm has given him a true moment of clarity this Christmas.
"We were terrified that we would lose our lives. We lost everything else. But I've got my family with me, and that's all that matters," said Perez, 28, who lived with his wife and children in Caguas before the hardships suffered by all Puerto Ricans after the hurricane compelled him to come stay with family in Newark's largely Latino neighborhood.
"Thank God Christmas is everywhere," Perez said. "There is the same love here, and now maybe even more."
Several community organizations, led by North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. and his civic association, the Anibal Ramos Jr. Civic Association, worked together in the basement of Immaculate Conception Church on Woodside Avenue on Thursday night to help the Perez family and other Newark families in need have a brighter holiday season.
More than 300 people were treated to free food donated by local restaurants, toys for the children, complimentary movie tickets and $50 gift certificates provided by the Whole Foods market in downtown Newark. A raffle was also held for Disney on Ice tickets at the Prudential Center.
"This is what I love to do," said Ramos, who has held his holiday charity event for more than a dozen years, as he hugged kids, handed out gifts and dodged balloons while the DJ played everything from "Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms to "Christmas in Hollis" by Run-DMC.
"You know at least for a little while, despite some tough realities out there, people get to have a chance to enjoy themselves," the councilman said.
In addition to Ramos, the event was sponsored by state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, Councilman-at-Large Luis and Councilman-at-Large Carlos M. Gonzalez along with the Hispanic Law Enforcement Society of Essex County, the Hispanic Firefighters Association and the Rutgers University Newark Law Enforcement Department.
One man who came to out to help wore a unique Smurf-blue suit as he stated why he made the trip from the North Pole to the North Ward.
"I just want to give back to the community. We take for granted all of the good things that we have," said Santa Claus, who looked remarkably like a Rutgers University Police officer often seen patrolling the school's downtown Newark campus. "It's nice to see people receive something so special this holiday season."
Felix J. Perez, the eight-year-old namesake of his father, did something special while he and his family got through Hurricane Maria back in Puerto Rico. He drew what he saw around him, and how he felt about it, during the storm as way to help make his fear go away.
Drawing again to show those around him the dark times he recently went through, Felix then illustrated his outlook on his upcoming Christmas in Newark, one lit by the love of his family and his community.
"The wind was scary, but I like it here. It's fun," said Felix, who smiled slyly and shrugged when asked if he had been naughty or nice lately. "I would like a toy, or anything else. But what I really want for me and my family is just happiness."