KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony welcomed back an in-person crowd along with a special guest to mark the start of the holiday season.
Three days after his release from prison, Kevin Strickland served as the guest of honor and the official switch flipper to light up the tree.
“We are proud of you brother," declared Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas, as Strickland received one of many thunderous ovations.
It was an invitation he couldn’t pass up.
"I was honored to receive it because I knew it was a pretty big deal," Strickland said. "I was excited about it, and I couldn’t turn it down."
He was welcomed with open arms and loud cheers, 24 hours after his first Thanksgiving with his family in more than 40 years.
"It was just awesome. It’s my favorite holiday of the year," Kevin's brother, Roland, said. "I got to spend time with him, including my family, and we had a beautiful dinner — it was awesome."
The Stricklands have felt the embrace of many as well. A GoFundMe for Kevin's post-prison expenses has raised more than $1.2 million.
"Real special, the city and beyond the city has supported him in every way possible and embraced him," Roland said. "I just want to thank everyone for that, and my family does as well."
Four decades of his life were lost in prison, but on this night, Kansas City shared comfort and joy with Kevin Strickland.
"That was a lot. I didn’t think there was that kind of love in Kansas City. What I remember about Kansas City was 1978," he said.
After he and Lucas brought light to Crown Center, Strickland begins anew.
"I wanted to make sure Mr. Strickland knew how loved he is, and how much everyone here cares about you, and how much everyone will continue to care about you, pray for you," Lucas said. "This is one step in the journey. Mr. Strickland has a lot of life to live, and we’re going to make sure Kansas City is here to support you."
This story was originally published by Dan Cohen at KSHB.