'Stranger Angel' buys $600 of toys on Philly street, gives them away

Janice Brown-West calls the man in black work boots her "Stranger Angel."

She didn't see where he came from and she didn't see where he went, but in just a few minutes last Tuesday evening he changed her life and made one corner of Holmesburg just a little bit brighter.

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Janice Brown, far left, with her crew and their 'Stranger Angel,' Charles.

For three years, Brown-West has sold homemade trinkets and toys to raise money in honor of her 22-year-old daughter, Latoya Smith, and 11-month-old granddaughter, Rimanee, who were killed - along with two other children - in 2009 when a driver fleeing police crashed into a Feltonville sidewalk.

Brown-West uses some of the money she raises to pay young men she employs, including her deceased daughter's 10-year-old son Kyshone, of whom she has custody. She also gives some of her proceeds away to help others who have lost loved ones. It's not much - $300 or $400 - but it means a lot to Brown-West to be able to donate in her daughter's name.

This year, she is trying to raise money to take 20 kids who have lost their parents, like Kyshone, to Dorney Park. She wants to be able to fund a chaperone for each child as well.

At every sale, Brown-West hangs a picture of Latoya and Rimanee with the words "Gone but not forgotten" underneath. She tells her daughter's story. Kyshone, who was only 4 when he lost his mom and sister, tells the story too.

Brown-West did not realize it was National Night Out last Tuesday when she and the kids set her folding table and wares up at their usual location on the corner of Cottman and Torresdale avenues in Holmesburg, just around the corner from where they live. 

That night, they got a lot of interesting and interested passersby, including Mayor Jim Kenney, whom Brown-West said gave $20 towards their fundraising, and a reporter from the Northeast Times newspaper. The reporter was interested in Brown-West's story and so she shared it with her. Brown-West said as she did, a tall man appeared and hung back, just listening. When the reporter left, he asked her to tell him her story.

"He said 'How much do you need to raise?'" Brown-West recalled. "I said whatever we make would be a blessing."

The man asked Brown-West to start adding up entire baskets of toys, some of which totaled around $68 and others that totaled around $120. As her young workers came back from selling in the park across the street, he asked them to add up their baskets too. He bought all of them - more than $600 worth of toys.

"Then he told my son and the boys to 'Take those baskets and go give all that stuff to the children in the park,'" Brown-West recalled. "Now at this point I'm telling him I have to sit down. I can't take it and he's getting a giggle out of me, out of my joy. I just kept saying 'Thank you.'"

Brown-West said they asked the man his name.

"He said 'Just call me Charles,'" she said. "I don't even know if that's his real name!"

As the boys handed out light-up gadgets and other toys to the children in the park, dusk began to set in.

"The whole park was filled with light-up toys," Brown-West said. "Everybody was in joy. Everybody was in awe. It was a beautiful thing."

Then, "Mr. Charles" walked away. When Brown-West went to yell after him, she couldn't tell where he'd gone.

"He was a stranger and he just disappeared like an angel," she said. "I call him Stranger Angel."

Brown-West's life hasn't always been easy. For many years, I chronicled the struggles she went through as she mourned her granddaughter and daughter and fought for custody of Kyshone and two of her other grandchildren. After a long battle with the Department of Human Services, Brown-West got custody of Kyshone, but her other two grandkids were adopted out to a stranger. DHS never said why Brown-West was fit to care for one grandchild, but not the others.

So seeing a stranger do something so nice for someone who has gone through so much brings me great personal joy too. Hearing the joy in her voice and the joy in the voice of the children beside her - especially Kyshone, who has also suffered - is the stuff that makes life worth living.

Brown-West said she will never forget the moment.

"For him to do something for someone else in memory of my daughter and granddaughter makes me so happy," she said. "We are supposed to do something for others while they are here. After they are gone, there is nothing we can do."