Kevin Cullen

The gifts that last

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / December 14, 2009

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When she was 8 years old, all Klarisha Williams wanted for Christmas was a black Barbie.

Klarisha and her family had been thrown out of their apartment, and were living in a motel in Malden. They took a bus into town and walked into BC High, where Jake Kennedy used to put on Christmas in the City.

“I think they snuck in,’’ Kennedy said.

The idea behind Christmas in the City is simple: Every kid deserves a toy on Christmas, even homeless kids. One toy they really want.

That day, 18 years ago, the people at Christmas in the City looked around the toy bins and found what Klarisha’s brother and sister asked for. But there was no black Barbie for Klarisha.

“I cried and cried,’’ Williams said the other day. “My mom was going to spank me and Jake said, ‘There won’t be any hitting.’ ’’

The Williamses got back on the bus and went back to the motel in Malden, and Klarisha wept softly, to herself, so her mom wouldn’t hit her.

On Christmas Eve, it was raining. Klarisha sat on one of the two beds and stared blankly at the TV.

There was a hot plate on the nightstand, and if there was anything to eat on Christmas that’s where it would be cooked.

There was a knock on the door.

“Jake and a bunch of volunteers showed up with two or three garbage bags full of toys and stuff,’’ Williams said. “They filled the whole room.’’

Kennedy handed 8-year-old Klarisha a black Barbie.

“I have no memory of any Christmas before that one,’’ she said. “I don’t ever remember getting a toy for Christmas before that day.’’

Kennedy, his wife, Sparky, and an army of volunteers are putting on the 21st Christmas in the City next Sunday. There are 2,800 homeless children coming, from all over eastern Massachusetts, the biggest number ever.

For many of them, it’s the only party they ever go to.

Last year, Christmas in the City brought gifts to an additional 1,000 families who aren’t homeless but are hurting. This year, it’s 2,200 families.

“It’s a combination of the economy and the referrals we get from the United Way, Salvation Army, you name it,’’ Kennedy said. “The need’s never been greater.’’

For the last couple of weeks, Kennedy’s physical therapy clinic on Franklin Street in Downtown Crossing has resembled a Toys ‘R’ Us.

It needs all the help it can get.

You can drop by at 45 Franklin St., or call at 617-542-6611, or, maybe easiest of all, go online at, and get a kid’s name and buy the toy he or she asked for.

“We’ve given out 1,500 names,’’ Kennedy said, “but we’ve got a lot more kids.’’

Eight years after she got the black Barbie, Williams went back to see Kennedy and tell him some news.

“I’m pregnant,’’ she announced.

Kennedy looked at 16-year-old Williams and couldn’t understand why she seemed so happy.

“All I could think was, ‘Great. The cycle of poverty continues,’ ’’ he said. “I couldn’t appreciate that, given the dysfunction she was living in, she thought this was good news.’’

Kennedy put his hand on Williams’s shoulder that day and said, “You’ve got to stay in school.’’

And she did. She got a job. And now she’s studying to be a medical assistant.

“She’s top of her class,’’ Kennedy said, like a proud dad. “She rose above everything.’’

Christmas in the City is more than a party. It’s a journey.

“We follow these families,’’ Kennedy said.

Williams will be there next Sunday, and she’s bringing her 8-year-old daughter Janasia.

This time, though, they’ll be handing out toys, not receiving them.

“It’s going to be nice, to be on the giving end,’’ Williams said. “I can’t wait for Christmas.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at