A Family Saved
Lt. Bobby Qualls was shopping when he received a text message: Fire on Beechmont, one-story house, child trapped inside. “I was picking out gifts for the family our engine house adopted for Christmas,” remembers Qualls, who has been fighting fires in Memphis for 24 years. “I had this sinking feeling as I got in my car and headed over.”
The last time Qualls had been on Beechmont Street was to install smoke detectors at the Bateman-Tubbs home. He’d been on a secret mission to see if they needed an extra boost during the holidays. There he discovered that the four Bateman-Tubbs children were sleeping on bare mattresses, and he found two of the boys playing outside in 30-degree weather with no shoes or coats.
Qualls learned that Leonard Tubbs was doing his best to make ends meet laying floors while Kimberly Bateman stayed home with the kids.
“When Bobby told me his team wanted to be Secret Santas and buy my kids toys, at first I thought we didn’t need any help,” Bateman recalls. “It really touched me. I told him what the kids really needed was warm clothes.”
That’s exactly what Qualls was shopping for on December 9, 2008: winter jackets for Christopher, seven; JoJo, four; Madison, one; and two-month-old Charles. While driving over to Beechmont Street, he dialed Bateman’s cell phone. She answered on the first ring, screaming, “The house is on fire—JoJo’s trapped inside!”
By the time Qualls reached the house, the family had gotten out, but their home was severely damaged. His coworkers had found JoJo hiding under a pile of clothes in a back bedroom. He had stopped breathing and had been given CPR and rushed to the hospital. Qualls learned that JoJo was now on life support and might not make it through the night. He rushed to the hospital with Lt. Mark Eskew, who placed a stuffed teddy bear in a firefighter’s suit on JoJo’s bed.
“I just kept praying my little boy would open his eyes,” Bateman recalls. “There was nothing else I could do. They were pumping soot as black and thick as tar out of his lungs and stomach for days.”
After a few days, though, JoJo regained consciousness, and the tubes were taken out of his throat. While he began to slowly recover, the local newspaper and TV stations got hold of the story, and the Secret Santa mission of Qualls and his fellow firefighters snowballed. Before long, the fire station was overflowing with boxes of toys, food, toiletries, towels, and clothes. People called, wanting to donate furniture and appliances too. By December 23, Bateman and Tubbs had moved their kids into a new rental home. By Christmas Eve, JoJo was ready to leave the hospital, and the firefighters were ready to deliver the family their very own Christmas miracle.
“These guys aren’t just firefighters,” says Bateman, “they’re our guardian angels. If they hadn’t installed a smoke detector that first day they came to our house, we wouldn’t have known when the fire started. Then they went the extra ten miles to give us a Christmas.”
Reported by Jennifer Haupt
When Delwyn Collins was a kid growing up in the projects of Fort Worth, Texas, he was labeled handicapped with a learning disability and sent to a special education school. His teachers never suspected that Collins was a genius at caring: Today the 52-year-old cafeteria worker at Tampa General Hospital is nothing less than an angel to hundreds of foster children in Hills-borough County, Florida. These children—many with special needs and often moved from home to home—tug hard at Collins’s heart. Christmas 2010 will mark the 21st year he has set up a Foster Angel’s Giving Tree decorated with paper angels bearing the first names, ages, and gender of foster children and the gifts each child would like to receive.
Collins is a man of modest means, but each week he sets aside a portion of his paycheck to buy gifts to put under the tree. “I just want to show these children there is somebody out there in the community who loves them.” His unpretentious example has inspired the doctors, nurses, and administrators he works with to make the Giving Tree a priority. Hospital employees and visitors take an angel off the tree and buy the present the child has requested.
As Christmas nears, bicycles, dolls, clothes, and video games begin to overflow the cafeteria. In recent years, the program has begun to receive presents from donors throughout the county. More than 1,000 kids in foster care in and around Tampa received gifts in 2009. “My job is to help and give to others,” says Collins. “God doesn’t care if we’re rich or poor.”