At 16 months old, Haisley Jo Matheny is still too little to know who Santa Claus is, but like children everywhere, she loves getting gifts.
“I just got her this little stroller with a little baby in it and she just loves it,” her father, Ashton Matheny, 23, tells PEOPLE.
“I tell her to give the baby kisses and she kisses the baby,” says the North Dakota resident. “She pushes the stroller with the baby in it and she holds the baby. It’s really cute.”
For Matheny, these sweet moments with Haisley Jo are especially precious because the young father and daughter have survived a nightmare.
On August 19, 2017, Matheny’s longtime girlfriend, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, 22, was 8 months pregnant with Haisley Jo when she was lured to an upstairs apartment in the Fargo building where she lived with her parents and younger brother.
Inside the apartment, her neighbor, Brooke Crews, 38, did the unthinkable: she cut open the young mother’s abdomen and ripped her baby out of her womb. Savanna’s body was found wrapped in duct tape and plastic in the nearby Red River weeks later.
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In February, Crews was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for conspiring to commit murder.
In October, Crews’ now ex-boyfriend, William Hoehn, 33, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after he pleaded guilty to kidnapping and providing false information to authorities.
After enduring such a stressful and painful time, Matheny says he is relieved that life for him and his daughter is much calmer now.
“Life is steady,” he says. “Things could always get better. But I’m content.”
These days, Matheny is studying business administration at a local community college. Haisley Jo is enrolled in a local Head Start program, where she enjoys playing with other children.
She is a big fan of the Baby Shark song. “She just loves that,” he says. “She dances and sings to that song.”
She’s walking — and has started to talk.
“She says ‘Daddy and Mommy,’” he says. “She just learned to say puppy.”
She called their new cat ‘Puppy’ until just recently, he says. “Yesterday she learned to say Kitty. She says, ‘Kit!’”
Money is tight for the young single dad. “I’m looking for a job for the weekends but can’t find anything right now. There aren’t many jobs around here. At least jobs that pay well.”
That’s why he says he is so grateful for the outpouring of support he received from a GoFundMe account that was set up last December to help him and Haisley Jo that raised more than $22,000.
He used the money to buy a vehicle and to renovate his modest home for him and his daughter. “I renovated it and it looks brand new inside and out,” he says.
People still reach out to him on the site to wish him and Haisley Jo well, he says.
As he and Haisley Jo celebrate Christmas with his family, Savanna is never far from his mind. “I think about her every day,” he says. “That will never change.”
He wishes Savanna were there with him to see all the new things his “love bug” is doing these days.
Haisley Jo is certainly loved, he says. “She is a happy little girl.”
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