Nine-year-old Cadence Freedom Lawrence does not want gifts this Christmas.

“It is better to give than to receive,” said the fourth- grader who attends Rio Vista Elementary School in Amphitheater Public Schools.

The young girl was moved by a story about a 9-year-old girl in Sudan who had little clothing and food. The girl could not go to school because there was no school in her village.

After hearing the story several weeks ago, Cadence decided she did not want Christmas gifts. Instead, she wanted to gather blankets, coats and clothing for families in need.

Her mother, Celeste Lawrence, is helping Cadence get her wish. Lawrence sent an email to about 100 people in their north-side community telling them about her daughter’s wish.

Their neighbors have responded with clothing and items that fill more than half a dozen large plastic bags.

Recently, the mother and daughter sorted through the donations, which they plan to give to women and children at a Tucson shelter.

They also will give goods to refugees who have resettled here and made Tucson their home. The mother and daughter volunteer at the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that aids refugees.

“I am so proud of her,” said Lawrence, 31, about her daughter. “She has a kind heart, just like her father had,” she said, recalling her late husband Marine Cpl. Jeff Lawrence who was killed in action in Iraq July 6, 2004, by an improvised explosive.

The 22-year-old father died four days before Cadence was born at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Jeff Lawrence is buried at Holy Hope Cemetery, and his father, Daniel, who retired from the military after 41 years of service, passed away earlier this year and was laid to rest next to his son.

Jeff and Celeste were high school sweethearts. He was a football standout and a 2000 graduate of Palo Verde Magnet High School.

Cadence continues learning about her father through her mother.

Celeste shared a story. The two would talk by telephone. “Before he died, Jeff noticed kids there (Iraq) who did not have toys,” recalled Celeste.

“His wish was for the kids to get soccer balls, footballs, volleyballs, baseballs to play with. At the time, I worked at a Walmart in Jacksonville, and the company shipped hundreds of balls over to Iraq after Jeff died.

“Every time a group of Marines went out on a mission they would leave balls out for the kids,” she said.

After the story, Cadence said: “I wish he would have been here when I was born.”

A photograph of her father in his dress uniform sits near Cadence’s bed. She says she wakes up every morning and says “Hi” to her father in the photo, and when she leaves for school she says “Bye.”

Her mother points out that Cadence has her father’s gray-blue eyes, and some of her facial expressions are a spitting image of his.

The girl believes her father would be proud of her. Her mom said she knows he is.

So is Michael Chappell, Celeste’s boyfriend of three years. The two have a healthy, happy 1-year-old boy, Finnegan, who is close to Cadence, and who brings joy to the household.

The mother and daughter plan to collect blankets, coats and clothes from their neighbors through mid-December to have ready to take to a shelter, and to give to refugee families in time for Christmas.

The two aren’t seeking outside donations for their efforts this holiday season. They said they want to challenge others to choose their own cause to donate to this holiday season.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at or 573-4104.