Yatooma Foundation brings joy to family hit by tragedy

Within minutes Saturday, an innocuous street in Shelby Township, filled with the sounds of snowplows and the scraping of snow shovels, was replaced by the warming voices of Christmas carolers, Christmas music, and everything that is good about the holiday season.

Tarps placed on the driveway, 200 presents quickly transferred there from a moving van and friends and loved ones swept in to surprise Daniel Cerqua and his children.

Just as quickly, the bringers of holiday cheer were gone, moving on to the next family in need of some smiling faces.

“I wasn’t prepared for this. It was absolutely overwhelming,” Cerqua said after daughter Gaby, 7, and son Domenic, 13, had followed Santa Claus to open packages left there courtesy of the Yatooma’s Foundation For The Kids. Volunteers from the Foundation spent Saturday delivering presents to three families who had recently lost a parent as part of their “Extreme Christmas Makeover” program. In the case of the Cerqua family, the foundation will also be taking care of the families winter bills and pay for enrolling Gaby into a gymnastics class.

Cerqua was tipped off that someone would be coming to his house to drop off a couple of gifts, “like a birthday party,” he said. He never expected such overwhelming generosity.

“At first, when I saw it, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I don’t need anything. I don’t want anything. Just go. But then once it got going, you knew it was a good thing for the kids,” Cerqua said. “It slowly hit me how special this was. It was amazing. This will make them happy. And I think they’ll always want to help people out because I think they’ll want to be part of something like this in the future to help another family that went through the same thing. That’s what I’ve learned from this.”

In September, Daniel and his wife, Kristan, 38, had just moved into their new house in Oxford with their two children and a newborn girl, Maryana, Within weeks, Kristan was struck with pneumonia and passed away in her sleep. Daniel and his family were devastated. His oldest daughter Gaby is having the most difficult time and refuses to live in her new house — her loss still too raw, the feeling of grief in that house too strong. For now, Daniel and family are living in his parents’ house in Shelby Township. They have put the Oxford house up for sale, and he does a 25-minute daily commute to drop his kids off at school. As might be expected, the last several months have been tough on everyone.

Family members contacted the Yatooma Foundation, started 15 years ago by prominent attorney Norman Yatooma, who came up with the foundation, along with his wife and mother, to help deal with his own personal tragedy. His father, Manuel Yotooma, was shot and killed in a carjacking attempt in 1993. He recalled his own personal suffering and how difficult it was for he and his family to move forward.

“Losing dad was beyond difficult, and in the first year or so, we really couldn’t see past that,” Yatooma said. “Our house was threatened with foreclosure more times than I can count, and we really didn’t have any help. But for family and friends who helped when they could, we wouldn’t have made it.”

Yatooma said, with the help of those family and friends, the foundation was established, and the memory of his father was honored.

“In the wake of that, it means everything. It’s a beautiful silver lining for us,” he said.

Yatooma took center stage on Saturday, donning a Santa suit and ringing the doorbell to usher the children down to their gifts. Smiles were contagious, and, at least for a little while, the Cerqua family was able to push aside its grief.

“Our hope is that we can have at least one really big, happy memory this Christmas season for these families,” Jennifer Zahler of the foundation said. “For all of our families, it’s either the first Christmas without mom or dad or it’s coming off a really bad year. We’re trying to create a special day for them.”

The other stops Saturday included Pontiac and Waterford, where a young working mother of two lost her husband to gun violence; and a mother of two who has overcome the loss of dad and several family members, in addition to a battle with breast cancer last year. Each will receive about 200 gifts, thanks to the generosity of the Harness, Dickey & Pierce, LC law firm, steel distributor Samuel, Son and Co. and private donations.

Daniel Cerqua said he didn’t know what his wife was thinking as she watched Saturday’s events unfold, but, while looking at some young extended family members admiring the toys, he knew what she would do if someone else was facing personal tragedy.

“I do know this about my wife, if it happened to say their mom, who she was close to, she would have done this for her. One hundred percent,” he said. “What’s she thinking now? She’s happy for sure, crying.”

Cerqua is also planning on helping the foundation in the future, to pay forward the help he received Saturday.

“I want to help because I saw my kids, how happy they were,” he said. “I’ll do whatever they want, whatever they need. Gifts, money, just participate. It’s the little things like this that do help the kids.”

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