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Brian McGrory

Christmas in the City is the best gift of the year

Children danced at the 2011 Christmas in the City event in Boston.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2011

Children danced at the 2011 Christmas in the City event at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

I’ve always worried that one of these years I’m going to climb the stairs to Jake Kennedy’s physical therapy clinic in Downtown Crossing, which doubles as the headquarters for Christmas in the City, and be met by a public relations consultant who informs me: “Jake’s not taking questions today. He’s lunching with his fund-raising team.”

Suffice it to say, this is not that year. Next year won’t be either. Nor any year. No, when I walked into Kennedy Brothers one afternoon last week, Jake was where he ­always is, standing amid a sea of ailing ­patients stretched out on exam beds, twisting shoulders and flexing knees.

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He eventually led me to the back of the clinic, where boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling. A young woman logged the names of homeless families into a laptop, and another volunteer said to someone on the other end of the phone, “Sir, if you give three toys to one boy, how do you think the child next to him is going to feel?”

That’s when Jake unveiled the big news for the year: He’s looking to host a record 4,000 homeless kids at his Christmas in the City event this Sunday afternoon. Who knew we even had 4,000 homeless kids in this area, but we do. Problem is, Jake ­Kennedy is heading toward the weekend in dire need of help.

Bill Brett/Globe File Photo/2011

Christmas in the City founder Jake Kennedy spoke at the 2011 event.

But before we dwell on the problem, a few words about the annual event known as Christmas in the City: Spectacular. Magnificent. Humane. It may be the single best afternoon of the entire year in Boston.

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In a nutshell, Jake and his wife Sparky throw a massive party for homeless mothers and their children at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. More than 150 buses fan out to shelters across the ­region to pick up the participants. When the families arrive, they walk into the event on a red carpet lined with costumed characters and decorations.

They are fed a massive lunch, whether it be fresh roasted turkey or chicken fingers, cake, and ice cream. Choirs sing. Bands play. The hall is ringed with dentists, hair dressers, face painters, magicians, nurses giving flu shots, all of it gratis.

After lunch, Santa beckons from atop a cherry picker. An enormous red curtain parts, Broadway style, snow falling on the other side.

The shouting, laughing, frantic kids race into a Winter Wonderland filled with rides, museum exhibits, moon bounces, a petting zoo, ponies, carnival games, and 20 Santas secluded behind drapes. Have no doubt, the kids haven’t had another day this carefree in their entire lives.

All this, and not a single paid staff member in the entire Christmas in the City organization.

Afterward, the whole group is led back to the tables to sit in anxious silence as a synchronized army of volunteers delivers personalized gifts to each child, something requested on a wish list weeks before.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2011

A girl opened a gift at the 2011 event.

And therein the issue, this year as every year.

Last Friday, Jake had about 2,500 kids covered. He needs personalized gifts for ­another 1,500. “We want every child to leave with the feeling that promises are kept,” Kennedy said. “Right now, the need is immense.”

In addition, Jake being Jake, has promised gifts to another 10,000 kids who aren’t homeless but very much in need. Their parents have already enrolled, their applications certified by social workers. They have been invited to pick up presents Monday morning. Kennedy is thousands short.

Readers can help. You can call the ­Kennedy Brothers clinic at 617-542-6611, and a nice volunteer will give you a child’s name and the gift requested. You can go to the website, Christmasinthecity.org, to ­donate cash or gifts. You can drop presents off with the valets at the Seaport Hotel or with the legendary George Grey at Lexington Toyota.

Or bring cash or gifts to Kennedy Brothers at 45 Franklin St., where you can see for yourself the crazed look in Jake Kennedy’s eyes.

I’ll say again what I’ve said before: It’s the best thing you’ll do this holiday season.

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