The beauty of Christmas in the City, beyond the selfless generosity of its all-volunteer army of 2,500, is the simplicity of its mission: that all children deserve a gift of their choice for Christmas.
That’s what inspired Jake Kennedy and his wife, Sparky, to launch Christmas in the City in 1989, when 165 mothers and their children from the city’s homeless shelters were treated to a festive party at Boston City Hall.
Thirty years later, the party at the city’s convention center had grown to 6,000 people from shelters all around Eastern Massachusetts. That party, in 2019, was the last for Jake Kennedy, who died from ALS in October 2020.
The pandemic, meanwhile, dealt a body blow to Christmas in the City, forcing Sparky to pull the plug on the big party the last three years.
“We didn’t want to be super spreaders,” Sparky said.
The plan is for the in-person event to return next year. While COVID made Christmas in the City’s reach more modest, it never went away. It continued to deliver toys and food and warm clothes to homeless shelters. This year, its volunteers will deliver to 38 homeless shelters in and around Boston.
As difficult as it has been for Sparky, losing her irrepressible and indefatigable husband, and navigating a pandemic that sharply limited the number of children she could help, she takes solace knowing that a new generation of leadership is emerging, ensuring Christmas in the City will survive and thrive.
Her sons, Zack and Chip, are taking on enhanced leadership roles, as is a new generation of younger volunteers, including 31-year-old Colleen Farragher.
The Kennedy and Farragher kids grew up together in Scituate.
Colleen (daughter of Globe columnist Tom Farragher) showed her logistical chops organizing Jake Kennedy’s surprise 65th, and final, birthday party at the Seaport Hotel, where she worked as an event planner. Hundreds showed up for a chance to thank Jake, one of the city’s greatest humanitarians. He died nine months later.
This year, Colleen is shelter coordinator for Christmas in the City, organizing drop-offs at 38 homeless shelters.
The pandemic cost Colleen her job, and she found herself on the verge of losing her home.
“I was unemployed for 10 months,” she said. “I was an Uber driver. I raked leaves for my landlord for rent.”
She’s now working for PwC, but that bout of vulnerability made her more determined “to help people who have not been as lucky.”
Zack Kennedy works as a researcher, trying to find a cure for ALS, which has devastated his family, causing the death of his father, his grandfather Chris, his uncle Jimmy, and has been fought with amazing tenacity by his uncle Rich.
Zack Kennedy is embracing his expanded role at Christmas in the City as a way to honor his dad.
“We’re trying to step up. We’ve got big shoes to fill,” he said. “My dad was just so great at inspiring and organizing people. As kids, he showed us the magic of Christmas, that it was about helping others. It’s his legacy, and we have to keep it going.”
Christmas in the City still relies on wily veterans, like the two Nancys, Nancy MacDonald and Nancy Brokamp, who have dedicated themselves to it for decades.
Sparky, the face of the organization, its field marshal, is not going anywhere.
“They haven’t kicked me to the curb yet,” she said.
As it does every year, Christmas in the City relies on the generosity of its supporters and the public to meet demand. This year, and next year with the big party back in play, is no different. Visit their website, www.christmasinthecity.org, to see how you can help.
Zack Kennedy said his parents started Christmas in the City not just to help the less fortunate, but to remind the more fortunate that the season was “about showing kindness and good will to others.”
Helping others, Jake Kennedy firmly believed, is the essence of Christmas. It is his legacy, one worth continuing, forever.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at email@example.com.