Christmas in the City lifts spirits of homeless families

With workers dressed like elves and a high-paced toy room that granted children’s wishes, Boston’s annual Christmas in the City extravaganza could rival Santa’s North Pole operation.

Ornate 20-foot Christmas trees and bouquets of poinsettias decorated the entrance of an exhibit hall at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center Sunday, mesmerizing thousands of homeless and needy Massachusetts families. Before the end of the day, thousands of giddy children and their parents would be treated to a parade, concerts, face painting, food, toys, and an indoor amusement park.

Siblings Nazyiah and NaCurtis Bailey danced to the hit song “Hit the Quan” as they waited to pepper Santa Claus with requests.

Nazyiah, 4, said she wanted action figures from the movie “Frozen,” while her brother, 5-year-old NaCurtis, prefered a set of Lego building blocks.

Mylisha Austin, their 38-year-old mother, said the family became homeless after a flood destroyed their Roxbury apartment. Austin, who has three other children as well, said events like Christmas in the City remind families that homelessness does not define them.

“It’s hard for people,” Austin said. “But everyone is doing the best they can.”

Anthony Raye, who lives at a shelter in Dorchester with his 6-year-old son, Antonio, said the day was important because it allowed children to act like children.

True to his word, Raye and his son then rode the popular Super Slide ride in the event’s “Winter Wonderland” amusement park. They both squealed as they zipped down the angled slide and laughed with friends as they watched a video of their feat.

Still, Raye said, he was shocked by how many people were at the event, an indication of how many people are living in homeless shelters throughout the state.

This year’s Christmas in the City, which is in its 27th year, hosted more than 4,500 children and 1,500 parents from homeless shelters and temporary housing facilities in Massachusetts.

“It blew my mind that there were that many people who need help,” Raye said.

Lea Sheppard, who currently lives at the Casa Nueva homes in Roxbury, called the party bittersweet for just that reason. Sheppard said that she and her 2-year-old daughter, Khaleesi, appreciated the warmth and dedication of Christmas in the city’s staff of volunteers. But Sheppard, who is a mother of four, said she has larger needs.

Sheppard has been homeless for the duration of her daughter’s life. She spent those two years living on friends’ couches, which caused one of her older children to be held back a grade in school, she said.

“What do I want for Christmas? I want a home,” Sheppard said. “I want to be able to tell my kids ‘Go to your room,’ not ‘Go to our room.’ ”

The cofounders of Christmas in the City, Jake and Sparky Kennedy, plan to launch a job fair in the next year to connect the donors who made Sunday’s event possible with the many attendees who are in search of permanent employment.

The Kennedys began Christmas in the City in the late 1980s, when the couple raised $400 to provide dinner and gifts to 165 children, Sparky Kennedy said.

This year, among the thousands who attended were US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Hall of Fame basketball player Jo Jo White, and more than 1,200 volunteers who provided food, monitored amusement rides, coordinated toy giveaways, and more.

Kennedy said that counting the value of donated items, Christmas in the City cost nearly $1.5 million.

Toward the day’s end, the children were surprised with individualized gifts bought from their personal wish lists.

Jayden Small, 12, pumped his fist as he opened his gift, a new football. Stressing that he was too old to believe in Santa Claus, said he was thankful that “the community” rallied to give him the ball.

“My favorite part of the day was spending time with my family,” said 8-year-old Gianna Gomez of Roxbury, after she “raised the roof” with some of her new possessions.

Avalee Henriquez, a 3-year-old from Dorchester, said her favorite part of the day was getting “snowed on,” though she was unaware the snow was actually tissue paper.

Henriquez, whose face was painted like a lion, said she asked Santa Claus for a real life “white horsey,” which her mother informed her was called a unicorn.

Even for Santa, that would be impressive.