A few days ago, a woman showed up at the Kennedy Brothers physical therapy clinic downtown, looking for a Christmas gift for her 17-year-old son.
A volunteer for Christmas in the City told the woman that her son was too old, that the toys are for children.
The woman tried to explain, in a mix of broken English and Haitian Creole, that her son isn’t really 17. But the inability to communicate and her despair got the best of her, and she began to hyperventilate.
Max Julien, Christmas in the City’s great fixer, was standing nearby and overheard. She recognized the language. She recognized the frustration, too, because when she came to America from Haiti 30 years ago, Julien didn’t speak English.
“She didn’t have the words to explain to that volunteer,” Julien said. “Her son has special needs. She said he is 17 but has the mind of a 4-year-old. She was asking for a toy for a 4-year-old.”
Julien told the woman she’d make sure her son got a toy, and the woman hugged Max Julien tightly, fighting back tears.
The concept behind Christmas in the City is simple but profound: that every kid, even a homeless kid, especially a homeless kid, deserves to get at least one gift they really want for Christmas.
When they started Christmas in the City 28 years ago, Jake Kennedy and his wife, Sparky, put together a party and gifts for 165 homeless kids. Now they need more than 165 buses to fetch the kids from homeless shelters and hotels and motels across the metropolitan area.
The numbers grow every year. Last year, some 4,500 homeless kids were treated to a party at the city’s convention center, which is transformed into a winter wonderland.
Jake Kennedy expects more than 5,000 at the party this Sunday.
The day after, volunteers hand out gifts to more than 10,000 children from families that can’t afford presents.
An army of more than 3,000 volunteers pulls this off every year. No one makes a dime off it. Every penny of every donation goes to the kids. The staff at Charles River Apparel turn out and make sure every kid gets winter clothing.
The annual appeal for Christmas in the City has appeared in a Metro column in The Boston Globe for a period that has spanned more than decade. And every year, the need grows.
Jake and Sparky Kennedy are not the type of people to cry wolf, but they are especially worried about this year.
“We always want a million more toys,” Jake Kennedy said. “We never have toys left over. But we need more money. We’ve never been this strung out for money. We’re looking for money and gifts.”
Sparky Kennedy put it this way: “We need a George Bailey moment.”
She’s talking about the final scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when word goes around Bedford Falls that George Bailey and his modest building and loan company are in trouble because $8,000 is missing. Townspeople rally and pitch in money to save George Bailey, delivering the cash in a heartwarming, communal rush to the Bailey home.
Christmas in the City is one of Boston’s great signature institutions, bringing joy to the most vulnerable among us. They need a George Bailey moment over the next few days.
If you want to be reminded of what Christmas is all about, go to http://christmasinthecity.org, call Kennedy Brothers at 617-542-6611, or stop by the downtown clinic at 45 Franklin St. between 6 a.m. and midnight to contribute a gift or get the name and wish list of a homeless child.
You can do the same at any Kennedy Brothers clinic in Cohasset, Braintree, Needham, or Watertown. You can drop toys off at Lexington Toyota or the Seaport Hotel, where they’ll valet you for free.
Max Julien’s gift is watching the face of a homeless kid when they realize they’ve gotten the one thing they wanted.
“It’s like winning the lottery,” she said.