EAGAN, Minn. — It was almost as if Symmieona Williams and her 9-year-old daughter, Zy'Aeriyau, were in a daze.
They could hardly stop laughing, and when they did, they excitedly recapped what had taken place just minutes before.
The pair were part of some special holiday festivities Wednesday night at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, as every member of the Vikings offensive line surprised underprivileged families with gifts and dinner.
"I never thought this would happen. I was scared, I was happy … just all kinds of emotions," Zy'Aeriyau said. "I kind of took my first peek [into the room] and turned around. But then I went in.
"I was just mind blown," Zy'Aeriyau added. "It's like getting a first peek at your presents."
Added Symmieona: "My heart just started racing. It was pretty amazing. We've never had anything like this happen to us."
Each of the families impacted were from The Link, a Minneapolis-based program that supports those who have been impacted by homelessness, sex trafficking or both. The program was initially founded by Vikings Legends Jim Marshall and Oscar Reed.
The families were divided into two groups upon arriving.
The Vikings offensive line surprised underprivileged families with a holiday party. Each of the families impacted were from The Link, a Minneapolis-based program.
Brian O'Neill, Dakota Dozier, Josh Kline, Brett Jones, Aviante Collins, Oli Udoh, Dru Samia, John Keenoy and offensive line coach Rick Dennison welcomed the first group into their position room at the team facility — decked out in the holiday spirit — to open gifts and meet Santa.
Beth Holger, the CEO of The Link, partnered with the Vikings community relations team to send a list of toys for each child.
"We assembled wish lists for each child, so they were all very individualized," Holger said. "When you saw the kids opening up the presents, you could tell how excited they were because it was exactly what was on their wish lists.
"One of the kids cried. It was just an amazing experience that none of them have ever had," Holger added. "It was very unique and just such a wonderful thing."
Zy'Aeriyau took an immediate liking to her chemistry set, while her mom was thrilled to get a new blanket.
"We have some blankets, but somehow the kids always end up with mine," Symmieona Williams said with a laugh. "I'm hiding this one."
Other gifts throughout the night included stuffed animals, diapers, clothes, toy cars and a NERF Hoop set.
While the first group opened gifts, the second group hung out with Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury and Rashod Hill in the indoor practice facility. The group tossed footballs, posed for pictures and chatted with guests.
The groups then switched spots, with each child getting specialized attention as they opened their gifts. The families were later treated to a catered dinner at the team facility.
Jones initially came up with the idea to host the families. He and Collins led the charge on the event and were glad that every lineman was on board and energized by the experience.
"This is the holiday season, and there are families that are less fortunate," Jones said. "It's in our nature as offensive linemen that we want to protect and care for people.
"You want to do it for those kids," Jones added. "Whether or not they get to open one on Christmas Day, you don't know. This is pretty special for them. They were able to have a lot of fun, and to know we were able to help them to do that, it means a lot."
Added Collins: "Oh man, it was awesome. It kind of brings you back to your childhood. I remember my face lighting up on Christmas Day. I saw that in these kids and I'm just glad we were able to give that to them. They might not have ever had this before … so it was great to bring that joy to their eyes."
Vikings FB C.J. Ham and his family "adopted" a family from a local chapter of Boys & Girls Clubs for Christmas. The group was treated to dinner followed by a tour of TCO Performance Center.
Ham family adopts local family for Christmas | By Lindsey Young
By the end of the night, strangers felt like family.
C.J. Ham and his wife, Stephanie, and their two daughters, Skylar and Stella, again "adopted" a family from a local chapter of Boys & Girls Clubs for Christmas.
When Gertha Cochran, her sister and five of her grandchildren, all of whom she's adopted, arrived at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center and met the Hams for the first time, initial timidity quickly gave way to warm exchanges and conversations.
Gertha is raising the five children while caring for her sister, who faces cognitive challenges.
"I wanted to keep them together," said Gertha of adopting the children. "We're a happy family. We have our ups and downs, but we stick together. I'm just happy. I often think it's just God-sent because I had five of my own, and then after I raised my five, then I got five more. And I had four girls and one boy – and this is what I ended up with now, four girls and one boy."
Gertha, who recently underwent knee replacement surgery, and the children enjoyed interacting with 1-year-old Stella and 3-year-old Skylar and weren't shy about asking C.J. questions about his job and his interests.
The group was treated to dinner followed by a tour of the Vikings practice facility led by C.J.
But the biggest reaction occurred when the group walked into a room to find piles of Christmas gifts personally addressed to each member of the family. Shouts and cheers mingled with the sound of tearing paper as they opened gifts of the practical variety – including socks, blankets and new tennis shoes – as well as new electronics, games and toys.
When the oldest daughter ripped back paper to reveal a brand-new iPad, she found herself overcome with emotion and tearfully hugged C.J.
"It's just important to us to give back," said C.J., who grew up as a member of the Boys & Girls Clubs. "We have the platform to do it, and it's been something that's been close to my wife's and my heart since the beginning. To be able to give back to a family like this, it brings us a lot of joy, and we just hope that we can bring them joy, as well."
"We know that Christmas is about more than just gifts," he added. "But for us to be able to help them with that part, and to see the joy that they had in their hearts and the raw emotion about some of the gifts that they got, it really means a lot me."
Gertha looked on proudly with watery eyes but a wide smile.
She called the Ham family "God-sent."
"You can tell that they're genuinely sincere and honest," she said. "It just touched my heart."
"That meant a lot to me to see them feel so important," Gertha continued. "When children are raised without a mother and a father, they don't get that attention all the time; they don't feel important all the time. This is just so beautiful."