If you ask Rodney Beldo why he volunteers at Christmas in the City, he takes you back more than 35 years, to a sidewalk in Dorchester.
He was 15 years old and was mistaken for some kid in the Castlegate gang. They shot him in the leg and after he got out of the hospital some guy from Castlegate came by to see how he was doing.
“He talked to me like a father would, showing concern,” Beldo said.
Beldo’s father wasn’t around so the gang more or less adopted him. He got into the life, ran the streets, eventually became a gang leader.
“I did a lot of things I regret,” he says. “But I didn’t get caught.”
Rodney Beldo’s life changed when his son, Rodney Jr., was born. He didn’t want his son to grow into the life, so he left that life. He got a job, made a family home, and went to his son’s basketball games. By the time he was a teenager, Rodney Beldo Jr. was playing AAU ball with a kid from Scituate named Sam Malone.
Malone’s dad, Joe, and Rodney Beldo Sr. became friendly and one thing led to another and then Rodney Jr. was living with the Malones, attending Scituate High. Rodney Jr. was playing for Scituate High when he broke his finger during a game. Jake Kennedy, the team’s trainer, set the finger and Rodney Jr. went back in and won the game in dramatic fashion.
Kennedy and his wife, Sparky, heard Rodney Sr.’s story and were moved. Sparky gave him some handyman work, because Rodney can fix anything, and then Jake gave him a job at the Kennedy Brothers physical therapy clinic on Franklin Street downtown.
That’s when Beldo found out that, in their other lives, Jake and Sparky Kennedy founded an extraordinary thing called Christmas in the City, which affords homeless kids a special day, when the kids get the one gift they really want, and a few more on top of that. Beldo joined the greatest gang on earth, the 3,000 people who volunteer to make Christmas in the City happen.
It started 27 years ago, serving 165 homeless kids. Now they need 170 buses to bring the kids in from area homeless shelters. Last year, there were more than 4,200 kids. This year, there will be 4,500.
The big party is set for Sunday, when those kids will run into a convention center converted into a winter wonderland. The day after, volunteers will hand out gifts to some 12,000 other kids from families that can’t afford presents.
But they need more toys, now.
If you want to be reminded of what Christmas is all about, click here, call Kennedy Brothers at 617-542-6611, or stop by the downtown clinic at 45 Franklin St. between 6 a.m. and midnight this week, and get the name and wish list of a homeless child, or just bring in a toy. You can do the same at any of the Kennedy Brothers clinics in Cohasset, Braintree, Needham, and Watertown. Or drop off toys at Lexington Toyota or the Seaport Hotel.
Rodney Beldo has used his skills to build some of the winter scenes that greet the kids at the party. When he sees the faces of those kids, he sees himself.
“There are so many kids who need a chance, to know that someone cares about them,” he said. “All I needed was a chance, a chance to get out of the world I was in. That’s a lesson we should remember for all children, whatever their circumstance.”
That bullet is still lodged in Rodney Beldo’s leg and he carries it around like a talisman, an internal reminder of how lucky he got, how hard he worked, to get away from a life that often leads to a prison cell or an early grave. He still lives in Dorchester, and every day he goes home to his wife and kids.
For Rodney Beldo, it’s Christmas every day.