Earlier this month, LaToya Nelson, a single mother from East Falls, was fretting over what to get her 9-year-old son, Jahseer, for Christmas, when she came across Unity in the Community, a nonprofit that helps local families with the holidays, and quickly signed up, thinking maybe there was a modest toy or food basket in her future.
On Thursday afternoon, she got more than she expected. Her son got every single toy on his wish list, and she got to meet a player from her favorite team: 76ers rookie star Ben Simmons.
The Nelsons were part of a holiday surprise organized by Simmons with the help of Unity in the Community that brought four local families to the Target store at 4000 Monument Rd. for a shopping spree. And it was a surprise. A week after Nelson signed up, she received a mysterious call from Anton Moore, founder and CEO of the nonprofit. Moore told her to meet him at 3:15 p.m. Thursday at Unity's headquarters in South Philadelphia. When Nelson, who works at a state liquor store in her neighborhood, arrived with her son, she was quickly ushered onto a bus with the other families without being told where they were going.
"The whole time, I was just wondering, 'What's going to happen?' " she said. "But I exhausted all the options and still didn't really have good guesses."
After arriving at the Target, the families snacked on pizza and brownies and waited for their surprise. The kids buzzed with anticipation.
Suddenly, the basketball player entered to cheers, and energy filled the room.
"Who wants to go shopping?" he asked. "Let's go get some toys!"
Soon, kids were dashing through the toy aisles and filling multiple shopping carts. Simmons, surrounded by a small mob, made his rounds — giving video game recommendations to Jahseer, and reaching for toys on higher shelves for the littler kids.
Jahseer moved through the aisles methodically, eventually coming out with a haul that included a Playstation 4, a Nintendo 3DS XL, a telescope, an iPad Mini, a drone and a foosball table.
After she had checked out, Nelson began to shed tears of joy.
"I never cry, but I was so stressed about this holiday season," she said. "I'm just happy Jahseer can get whatever he's been asking for. This has truly been such a blessing."
The shopping spree was Simmons' idea. Earlier this year, he reached out to Amy Hever, the 76ers' director of community engagement, to make it happen. Hever then turned to Moore for help identifying families who would benefit the most.
"I just really wanted to do something nice to give back to the city," Simmons said. "I'd love to do this next year too because it's something that I wanted to do growing up. Seeing the smiles on these kids' faces is worth it."