There is one day a year when kids who live in Boston's homeless shelters get to just "be kids" -- complete with toys from Santa Claus. And their parents, so often worried about providing the basics, can relax and participate in the revelry.
Welcome to Christmas in the City, a family-led, 100-percent volunteer nonprofit that's been putting on a Christmas party like no other since 1989.
Max Julien, a volunteer, grew up in Haiti, where Christmases were always sparse. "I know what it's like to have nothing. I know what it's like to wake up on Christmas and think, 'What's Christmas? There's nothing in the house,'" Julien told LifeZette.
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On Christmas Day, the organization brings nearly 4,000 kids and their parents from all over the city to Boston City Hall, where an enormous celebration occurs. The families walk in on a red carpet to a banquet of food all for them. The children spend the afternoon at a winter wonderland carnival, with carousel rides, a petting zoo, face painting stations, and other activities.
Health professionals also provide screenings, while dentists stand by to provide dental care. Children can also receive flu shots to inoculate them against the illnesses that often make the rounds at homeless shelters in winter.
And hairdressers from across the city volunteer their time in the salon corner, giving haircuts all afternoon long.
As evening approaches, eyes grow wide after volunteers announce that Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus will be making a stop at the party, bringing a haul of toys. Each child receives a toy that he or she personally requested -- purchased and donated by a volunteer.
"I wish you could see these kids' faces when they open up a toy," Julien said. "It's the best thing in the world."
"The kids really light up," said Christine Dixon, deputy director of Project Hope, which has a family shelter in Dorchester, Massachusetts. "They have an amazing day with all kinds of activities, entertainment, and presents, which is a huge support to these moms. It's a tough time for the families that are here in the shelter. They've lost a lot."
Dixon said many of the families have only recently lost their homes and are struggling to get back on their feet and acclimate to their new environment. This party gives them hope.
The whole effort takes at least 3,000 volunteers -- almost as many volunteers as the number of people who attend. Julien has been with the nonprofit for three years, dedicating most of his free time in November and December to organizing gift lists and sign-ups to make the holiday special for children in need.
And if the Christmas party isn't enough, the organization also sponsors programs for low-income kids who aren't homeless, but are still in dire financial need.
The Christmas in the City organization is proof that one family can make a significant difference in the community. The idea for the group began with one couple, Jake and Sparky Kennedy, who felt embarrassed by the number of gifts their young daughter received one Christmas in the late '80s. They decided to create a tradition of giving back instead.
In 1989, the Kennedys used their family business, Kennedy Brothers Physical Therapy, to create a list of coworkers, clients, and neighbors who were willing to volunteer time and gifts to homeless children. They sponsored the first Christmas in the City party, and 165 parents and children attended. The first party was simple by comparison -- just some decorations, a holiday meal, a personalized gift.
But as the years went on, the program expanded and an increasing number of volunteers allowed more children to attend and receive gifts.
It's the one day each year that the children and families say they're treated with dignity, Julien said.
And for those who volunteer and participate, the party is a powerful reminder of the best humanity has to offer -- making a time of year that can be painful to so many full of laughter and joy instead.