It started with a few friends who loved cigars. And it turned into a nonprofit dedicated to community service

Tony Gorman/CPR
The Cigar Lordz held their annual Christmas Toy Drive this month. More than 1,500 toys were donated for the event.

Outside of the Knights of Columbus Council #10122 building in Aurora before the big holiday, families form a long line out the door. Children wait with excitement, knowing Christmas — and presents — are about to come early.

Playing the starring role of Santa are the Cigar Lordz, a nonprofit organization founded on their love of — yes, you read that right — cigars. But, if you were to ask president C.J. Johnson, the organization does so much more than sit around smoking Monte Carlos.

“We do backpack drives in August,” Johnson said. “We do Turkey drives during Thanksgiving. And then, of course, we do the toy drive as well..”

In partnership with Toys for Tots and other organizations, more than 1,500 toys were donated to the group's drive this year. Each child and parent who showed up received three toys. (Parents who didn’t bring their children received two toys.)

“This is phenomenal,” said Stefan Brown, who is the Aurora-based group’s co-founder and event coordinator. “This is our fifth year, and every year it seems to get bigger.” 

The Cigar Lordz was founded in 2017 when two friends would take breaks from driving Uber and Lyft. They would sit, talk and smoke cigars. Soon, the group grew to five, then more. Brown, a Navy veteran from Chicago, said others began to take notice.

“Other brothers and gentlemen started seeing us and seeing our demeanor and how we acted. We weren't doing nothing wild, crazy. We were just enjoying cigars,” Brown said. “So, piece by piece, different people would approach us, ‘Hey, how do I become a cigar Lord?’”

From there, the group grew from five to almost 50 members. Then, they took the next step with community service. One of the organization’s first community projects was donating money to single parents who couldn’t afford to buy their children football equipment.

“We started donating and giving to that,” said Brown. “And from there it just spun off and started growing. We just started talking about what else we can do to donate and give back to the community.”

Outside of the backpack, turkey and toy drives, the organization plans keep going and offer programs that tackle teen suicide and gun violence for youth within the next two years.

“The whole idea of what we do too is cultural,” Johnson said. “We're trying to build a culture with what we do.”