Ebenezer Scrooge worked a miracle in the nation’s capital this year.
And that miracle was desperately needed because parts of this great city aren’t strikingly different from Victorian England.
Hidden among D.C.’s pricey craft-cider bars, million-dollar condos and sparkling stadiums, there exist Dickensian scenes of real-life Tiny Tims. About 27 percent of the District’s children live in poverty — more than 1 in 4, according to D.C. Action for Children.
And that was heavy on the minds of the Ford’s Theatre cast of “A Christmas Carol” as they started rehearsing the holiday classic in October, pretending to live in a city of haves and have-nots, smack dab in the middle of a city filled with haves and have-nots. Especially when it comes to kids.
“The fundamental gift of childhood is just that. To be a kid,” said the Ghost of Christmas Present. “And I want other kids to have that.”
Rayanne Gonzales, the actor who played that jovial, vivacious ghost, is also a mom. And she read one of my stories over the summer about the homeless families living in D.C. hotels and the local nonprofit organization that gives those kids a place to play.
When they began rehearsals, the cast members also continued their tradition of picking a local charity to benefit. And with Tiny Tim in the room, it was hard to say no to the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project.
The organization began years ago, around the time social worker Jamila Larson got permission to clean out one of the empty rooms in the now-closed shelter where homeless families were living in an abandoned hospital.
In her space, Larson created a fantastic program where children were allowed to experience the joy of play and learning. They had games, books and tutors. They met an astronaut and a pro-football player who was once homeless as a kid, and they got to go trick-or-treating.
The playtime project creates time free of stress. It is a few hours every week where these kids don’t have to worry about rats, or theft, or having anyone on the bus find out that they don’t have a home, or that everything they own is in a plastic trash bag.
Since the demolition of the shelter, about 1,500 homeless people are being housed in low-budget motels in the District, mostly along New York Avenue, where children are not allowed to play in the hallways, lobby, ballrooms or courtyard.
So Larson and her group have been asked to rent the motel ballrooms at gala-event rates, store their toys in giant bins and create pop-up playtimes to give the kids a sense of normalcy.
And the truth is, it has been crushing their organization. This is the first year that they’ve ever came up in the red.
The actors didn’t know the playtime project was in trouble. They only knew that there were children living in poverty a few miles from the plush historic theater where they were acting out scenes of poverty. They knew they could help change that.
So after each performance, Scrooge, played by Craig Wallace, stood before the audience and asked them to help the homeless kids of the District.
“You should’ve seen it. I was so moved by what happened,” Gonzales said.
“During the matinees, we’d have mostly kids. Students. And I saw almost all of them throw in some money. Quarters. A dollar. Kids who probably got a $20 for lunch gave it all to me,” she said. Over the years she has been doing this, Gonzales said she had never seen such a response.
One man wrote a $500 check on the spot.
“I do think there is something about Tiny Tim and his vulnerability that moved people,” she said.
It was the 10th year in a row that the cast voted on a charity to focus on, said Liza Lorenz, director of communications at Ford’s Theatre. They’ve raised more than $835,000 doing this. But this year — when they focused on the city’s homeless children — they raised their highest amount ever.
Once all the collections had been made, the cast invited Larson and the chairwoman of her board, Jan Piercy, to a matinee performance to collect the check.
“We burst into tears when the cardboard check was revealed,” Piercy said. “$100,000.”
“I cannot believe that figure, even as I report it. Playtime, since inception, has always operated within its annual budget,” she said. “Until this year, when our commitment to following our children and families in wake of D.C. General’s closure strained our resources and we came up short,” Piercy said.
“This incredible windfall makes us whole,” she said.
Larson said it saved them.
“I cannot even tell you what a nail-biter this time of year is for most nonprofits, especially the small, community-based ones, who raise the vast majority of our annual funds from individual donors during this time,” she said. “Sometimes, it can make or break us.”
The children will continue to play and grow and learn thanks to the people who sat in Ford’s plush, paprika-colored chairs and watched Scrooge’s transformation onstage.
As Tiny Tim put it: “God bless us, every one.”