“I’m checking this guy out and I’m like, ‘Yeah, okay buddy,’ ” Lewis-Weeks said. “I’ve done this for 27 years and I know people don’t always follow through.”
Skeptical, she told him to come back the next day to chat.
He showed up. He told her he had lived there, in the Harris Gardens Apartments in Harrisonburg, when he was younger. He’d gotten into trouble when he was 18 and served time for selling marijuana. When he finished his three-month sentence, he came to live in the complex. It has 200 apartments — half Section 8 government-subsidized housing and half for other low-income individuals.
“He told me he’s done really well for himself, he’d like to come by and give back to the residents on Saturday,” she said.
Lewis-Weeks said yes, but she still wasn’t convinced. After he left, she did an online search of his name, Adam Armstrong, and figured out that he lived in a large house across town.
She called him Friday and asked whether he was still coming. When he said he was at Walmart buying the toys, she made fliers and hung them around the complex, telling residents to be at the basketball courts at 10 a.m. Saturday.
She called and told him the fliers were up.
“I said, ‘Don’t play with me,’ ” she recalled telling him.
On Saturday morning, hundreds of residents gathered at 10 a.m. There was also a local news crew she’d invited. She held her breath.
Then, about 10:15 a.m., Armstrong pulled up in a 26-foot moving truck packed with bikes, dolls, stuffed animals, Nerf guns, remote-control cars and hundreds of other games. He had 1,327 toys, including almost 100 bicycles, he said. The total cost was $12,000, he said.
“He came and gave my kids free presents,” Lewis-Weeks said, still astonished days later.
Armstrong, wearing a Santa hat, distributed the toys by holding them up one at a time to the group of about 50 children and their parents and saying a variation of, “Who wants this?”
“The kids were so innocent and sweet,” Armstrong said. “They’d say, ‘Thank you.’ Some would be shy or reluctant. You can’t put a price on looking at these kids’ happy faces.”
He said he knew Lewis-Weeks initially was doubtful that he’d show up. He wasn’t offended, he said — he knew she was protecting the kids.
“I was trying to reassure her,” he said.
After handing out toys at the apartments, he went to three other low-income complexes and finished distributing the truckload of gifts to kids.
“Some of them have nothing, and to be able to give them a small toy … the reward and the pleasure was mine,” he said.
Armstrong said that for about six years, he’s been giving toys — sometimes lots of them — to various organizations, including his church and the Salvation Army. But he said he wanted a larger part of handing them out and interacting with the kids, so this year he decided to do it on his own.
Armstrong, 35, who has a 3-year-old daughter, said he grew up in the Harrisonburg area and has been living on his own since he was 16. After he served a few months in jail as a teenager, he decided he needed a change.
“I looked in the mirror and said, if I don’t do different I’m not going to get any different,” he said.
So he moved to the Baltimore suburbs and worked several jobs at a time, including managing a telemarketing line and waiting tables at a Bob Evans. He got into the mortgage business as a loan officer and started saving money. He bought and flipped houses, and he also got into the travel club business, which is similar to time shares, he said.
Armstrong said as he became more financially secure and comfortable, he decided he would help others who were in the situation he used to be in.
Lewis-Weeks said that in her almost three decades managing low-income housing complexes, this is something new.
“I’ve seen a lot,” she said. “No one has ever come back here to the projects and given back like this.”
Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.
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