Dozens of Christmas trees sparkle in various color-coordinated hues throughout April Niamtu’s Richmond home, some traditional (think pretty silver and blue decorations), some contemporary (feline print ornaments and sassy black accents). Stoic nutcrackers of all sizes stand at the ready on shelves and in corner nooks, and with a simple audible command, festive holiday lights illuminate the living room, basking everything in a soft glow.
It’s true that Niamtu, the 2019 Richmond Christmas Mother, started her holiday decorating in August, wasting no time getting into the spirit of the season by dragging holiday decorations from her sweltering attic during the height of summer heat.
The joy of this holiday season, however, cannot be taken for granted. This time last year, Niamtu’s life was about to be rocked. Evan, her youngest son, would be hospitalized the day before Thanksgiving with life-threatening bowel issues. For 45 days, the glitz and sparkle of the season happened elsewhere as the Niamtus — April and her husband, Dr. Joe Niamtu III — camped out in a hospital intensive care unit to watch over their son. Thanksgiving came and went, then their 20th wedding anniversary, then Christmas, then New Year’s.
In what truly became the season of hope, however, prayers were answered. Evan came home Jan. 4.
“We almost lost him,” Niamtu said quietly last month from the couch in her living room. A tall Christmas tree loomed in one corner and, behind her, stockings hung from the fireplace mantel. As she spoke, Evan, 17, and his brother Joey, 19, weren’t far away, comfortably watching a movie in the part of their home created especially for their needs.
Evan and Joey both have severe physical and mental disabilities. They cannot sit, stand, walk or talk, and are fed exclusively by feeding tubes. They have seizures. They need around-the-clock care. Challenging, yes, but a life Niamtu couldn’t imagine any other way.
Those who know her best say there’s no difference between August and December when it comes to Niamtu’s tireless dedication to her family, or to countless organizations — now including the Richmond Christmas Mother — that benefit children and adults alike.
The Richmond Christmas Mother Fund, sponsored by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, began in the 1930s with the combining of The Times-Dispatch’s Good Fellow Club and The Richmond News Leader’s Empty Stocking Fund. The newspaper absorbs all administrative costs.
This year marks the 85th year of the program.
The largest beneficiary of the Christmas Mother Fund is The Salvation Army Central Virginia, which receives a $150,000 grant to support its Christmas Distribution Center. Additionally, the fund will award $80,000 to nearly 50 holiday assistance programs, including other regional Christmas Mother programs, thanks to a partnership with The Community Foundation, which aggregates grant requests. Awards depend on the donations each year from Richmond Christmas Mother supporters, mostly Times-Dispatch readers. Also, the fund will award a $30,000 grant to Feed More to support the Christmas Pantry program for the fifth year in a row.
A Virginia Beach native, Niamtu said her public advocacy began in earnest after her marriage to Joe Niamtu, a facial plastic surgeon, in 1998. She’s been involved with organizations such as Safe Harbor, which helps victims of sexual and domestic violence; The Virginia Home, a Richmond-based residential home for adults with irreversible physical disabilities; SOAR365 (formerly Greater Richmond ARC), which offers services and programs for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities; and Noah’s Children, which provides palliative care for infants and children.
She also has served on the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities.
Kim Watson is vice president of community engagement for SOAR365, and she met Niamtu when Joey began receiving services there in 2000.
“For as long as I have known her, I have watched as she has found ways to serve others again and again and again,” Watson said, including working as an ambassador on the organization’s behalf, coordinating events such as the Ladybug Fund Winetasting, and participating on focus groups and planning committees for PARK365, the all-inclusive, handicap-accessible outdoor space at SOAR365’s North Richmond location.
Above all, Watson said, Niamtu openly shares her experiences as a mother of two children with disabilities.
“She has advocated for what is near and dear to her heart, both in public and behind the scenes,” Watson said. “April graciously treats every human being she encounters with dignity and respect, [and] in my eyes, this is the most important reason she is the perfect Christmas Mother for RVA in 2019.”
Kelly Wolfsheimer was a volunteer for Operation Smile in the Richmond area for 10 years. The organization works with children who have facial deformities, such as cleft palates and lips, burns and other disfigurements. She met the Niamtus during the organization’s second annual fundraising gala, called Sequins and Smiles, and the couple immediately jumped in to help plan the third and several subsequent galas, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and spreading the word about Operation Smile far beyond Virginia.
Wolfsheimer called April Niamtu “a tiger mom” with a “heart of gold.”
“I can’t think of anyone who epitomizes the best of motherhood — not the easy side of being a mom, but the tough side,” she said, like “the woman up at 2 [a.m.] who is suctioning tubes so her babies can breathe.”
“It would be easy for her to say that she’s got her hands full — because she does,” Wolfsheimer said, yet, despite her boys’ needs, “she still somehow has time to give back to help other mothers who face similar struggles.”
As Richmond Christmas Mother, Niamtu will participate in a variety of public holiday events across town, including The Jefferson Hotel’s annual tree-lighting ceremony at 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 2. She’ll also ride down Broad Street during the Dominion Energy Christmas Parade at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7. Niamtu shared that her mother is sewing her festive outfit and her oldest son from a previous marriage, Steve Gibson, will join her in costume during the parade.
Beyond those scheduled events, however, Niamtu said she’s taken the role of Richmond Christmas Mother to heart. She’s working with EAT Restaurant Partners (Foo Dog, Wong Gonzalez, Osaka, Fatty Smokes, Hot Chick, Beijing on Grove and others) to create Christmas Mother-themed cocktail and food specials through the end of December, in which part of the proceeds benefit the program. She’s visiting local schools to help with charity clothing drives and other events, and everywhere she goes these days, she carries candy canes and little cards with information about the Richmond Christmas Mother program and its mission.
“Everywhere I go, I give out candy canes,” Niamtu said, to which her husband, Joe, quipped, “She was born for this.”
“Anybody who watches the Hallmark Channel in August — and cries — is qualified to be the Christmas Mother,” he said jokingly, referring to the television network’s popular Christmas-themed movies.
But turning serious, Joe Niamtu said he’s never met anyone so dedicated to helping others and advocating for those who cannot do so for themselves. He said his wife’s Christmas spirit is infectious, and those feelings start in their home.
“My boys don’t understand what Christmas is,” he said, “[but] they know in the fall when Mommy starts going up into storage and coming down with boxes of ornaments, they know that something happy is going on.”
As lights twinkled around her, April Niamtu said she has many reasons to be thankful this holiday season. Working on behalf of the Richmond Christmas Mother program is simply another way she can channel those festive energies.
“I’m a little in awe that I was asked and chosen to take on this role,” Niamtu said. “It means the absolute world to me that I get to be part of such an amazing program.”