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Brian McGrory

One great gift idea

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / December 14, 2011
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I hope I’ve proven beyond any reasonable or unreasonable doubt over the years that Jake Kennedy is absolutely, certifiably mad - no offense intended. But in the slight chance that I’ve failed, along comes Jake this week to decisively prove my point.

You may or may not be familiar with Jake. He, along with his wife, Sparky, founded and run Christmas in the City, one of the greatest and most important annual events this city has ever known.

It’s pretty straightforward, this event. Every December, Jake and Sparky Kennedy throw a huge party for homeless children and their parents.

They rent a massive hall. They dispatch a fleet of 150 buses to homeless shelters in Boston and across the region to bring everyone to the festivities. The homeless families, mostly mothers and their kids, walk inside to find a massive food spread with pizza, chicken fingers, roast turkey, cake, and ice cream. Confetti floats in the air, cartoon characters work the room, Christmas choirs and bands play. A Newbury Street stylist cuts hair for free.

Eventually, the walls slowly open up and a Winter Wonderland is revealed. Think carnival rides, museum exhibits, a petting zoo, pony rides, carousels, moon bounces, bumper cars. The only thing missing are lines.

And at the end, after Santa has driven through atop a cherry picker, after the last face is painted, every kid gets a personalized, wrapped present that they had requested on a wish-list weeks earlier, along with a gift bag stuffed with gloves, hats, pencils, and books. It’s probably an understatement to say that it changes their world.

To put this in some perspective, these families are confined to often dangerous neighborhoods, constantly bumping up against unimaginable limits, grappling with bureaucracies that never cut anyone a break. Childhood is a glorified myth.

Not on this one afternoon. Relax and enjoy, they are told.

So back to Jake and the unimpeachable fact that he’s out of his mind. I was in the clinic he owns in Downtown Crossing one recent morning, Kennedy Brothers Physical Therapy, and I asked how many kids were coming this year.

“Last year, we had 2,600,’’ he said. “This year, we’re shooting for 3,500 kids, a new record.’’

Jake, that’s 30 percent bigger. Said Jake: “There’s a whole lot more need out there.’’

The event is this Sunday, and as of yesterday, Christmas in the City was still about 1,500 personalized gifts short. They weren’t helped by the fact that many contributors went to Amazon, only to mistakenly click on back-ordered items that won’t arrive by Sunday.

And Jake being Jake, he’s also trying to help several thousand more families who are, in his words, “desperate but not homeless.’’ People were told they could sign up Dec. 1 for help with Christmas gifts, and by 9 a.m. that day, there was a line two blocks long out the clinic door. Those gifts are to be distributed Monday, and they need many, many more.

You can help, which is the point of this. If you call Kennedy Brothers at 617-542-6611, someone will give you a child’s name and the gift requested. Or you can drop off new generic gifts at 45 Franklin St. in Downtown Crossing, Lexington Toyota, the Seaport Hotel in Boston (you don’t even have to get out of your car), or any other Kennedy Brothers clinic listed at kennedybrospt.com. You can contribute money at Christmasinthecity.org.

Keep one more thing in mind: There’s not a single paid staffer at Christmas in the City, just an army of hard-working volunteers.

I’ll say again what I’ve written before: It will be the best thing you do this season.

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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