In regular visits to Shriners Hospitals, Boston firefighter Michael R. Kennedy would plop himself down among grievously injured boys and girls from all over the world, grab a toy, and coax even the shyest child back to what kids are meant to do, to play and have fun.
“He would get into a roomful of kids and he was just one of them,” said Phil Skrabut, a firefighter on Engine 17 in Dorchester, who served with Kennedy on the board of the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation, which organizes visits and holds events for burn victims.
Kennedy, 33, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and who was one of the first responders at last year’s Boston Marathon bombing, died Wednesday with Boston Fire Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr., after becoming trapped while battling a nine-alarm blaze in the Back Bay. He had intended to run the Marathon next month and had been assigned bib No. 29384.
Long before Kennedy gave his life protecting his city, he gave his time, lots of it, to quiet community work.
Kennedy became involved with the Burn Foundation from the moment he joined the force 6½ years ago, according to several members who worked with him. The group organized bowling excursions and Christmas parties for hospital patients. Mike pitched at the foundation’s whiffleball games for the kids, on the Esplanade.
In 2007, Kennedy, a Roslindale native, began mentoring a 7-year-old boy through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, beginning a relationship that would last the rest of his life.
Last month, Kennedy led a Boston Fire Department contingent to Rhode Island to donate blood and join the bone marrow registry, in honor of a child with leukemia.
Friends say Kennedy had a gift for connecting with children hurt by fire.
“Mike didn’t see injuries; he just saw a kid that wanted to have fun,” Skrabut said. “The kids weren’t shy around him. He would pick up a toy and start playing as if it were his toy, and play with a kid as if he was the same age.”
Katie Siwy, a Shriners occupational therapist who knew Kennedy through the foundation events, said the visits help “create a normal environment in a hospital setting.”
“They come to spend time with the kids at a time they are needing friendship,” she said. “He took his own time to come in and cheer these kids up.”
Boston firefighter Steve Turley, a fellow foundation board member, said Kennedy exemplified the organization’s mission: to ease the suffering and hardship of burn victims and their families.
“I don’t think any of us are accepting that he is gone,” Turley said. “He’ll live on for a long time with us.”
About seven years ago, Kennedy approached Big Brothers Big Sisters about becoming a mentor, said Deborah Krause, the organization’s vice president of external relations and community engagement.
“Mike came to us after he was home from Iraq and was feeling very grateful about his own life and the blessing he had,” Krause said.
Kennedy was matched at the time with Genie Morelus’s then 7-year-old son, Alex. “He meant a lot of us,” Morelus, 37, of Milton said softly, in an interview Thursday. “I’m so thankful, so thankful he came into our life.
“If something happened at my son’s school, Mike was there,” she said. “Family event, he’s there. I have to let the world know he is a wonderful big brother and if he would have had kids he would have been the best dad you could ever have. Always there for you. Raining, pouring, snowing, he’s right there. Right there.”
A perfect day for Mike and Alex could be a Boston Celtics game or an outing to Six Flags amusement park, a burger at Five Guys, and “boy’s games” on the Xbox game console Kennedy gave Alex as a Christmas gift, Morelus said.
“Things that I couldn’t provide for Alex, Mike did it,” she said. “He got an Xbox for him. He also got him shoes I couldn’t afford, and things I couldn’t do, he did it for him.”
Alex, now 14 and in the eighth grade, is struggling with his mentor’s death. He doesn’t want to eat. He only wants to sleep. He tells his mother his head hurts.
“I told him — I say: ‘You know, Alex, the best gift you could give me is when you graduate from high school, that high school diploma belongs to Mike Kennedy. Stay in school, finish school, and give him that gift. That is what you can give him. Give him that high school diploma, because he deserves it.’ ”