SALT LAKE CITY — Rudy Gobert couldn’t help but get a little emotional as he saw the 25 kids in front of him unwrap their presents. It wasn’t just because he saw the joyous faces as their new toys were revealed. It was because it reminded him of a Christmas he had while growing up in France.
Gobert’s family wasn’t wealthy. Far from it. His mother, Corrine, raised him and two siblings in a two-bedroom apartment. That meant Christmases weren’t very extravagant in the Gobert home.
“I had to go to a local charity to get a gift,” Gobert said of one childhood Christmas. ”That was one Christmas I really remember. It really made me happy to have something.”
Many a Christmas has come and gone since then, but he still remembers that gift: a military Lego set. There will be plenty of kids remembering Thursday night because of him.
Each of the 25 kids who attended Thursday evening’s Rudy’s Kids Holiday Hoopla event has been affected by homelessness in some way. They’ve all been a part of Family Promise Salt Lake — an organization dedicated to helping families get back on their feet and find lasting independence. The kids have been homeless and shared beds with other children. They’ve slept on couches and even on the street. Magical Christmas mornings have been hard to come by.
But Ryan Mealing Jr. has hope — just like all kids do.
“A monster truck,” the 4-year-old loudly proclaimed when he was asked before the event what he wanted for Christmas.
Mealing’s family has been through a journey. Ryan Mealing Sr, his wife Desiree, and their two kids came from Georgia after finding out about Family Promise. They applied for the program, were accepted and moved to Salt Lake hoping it would help them get back on their feet.
Santa Rudy bringing some joy. pic.twitter.com/LmKRbexvQt— Ryan Miller (@millerjryan) December 13, 2019
“It’s been great,” Ryan Mealing Sr. said. “We didn’t know there were things out there that were this helpful for families in need. ... Work, housing, supplies, they helped us get on our feet. They helped us furnish it. Everything. They are still helping us to this day.”
Mealing Sr. even got to take Junior to a Jazz game last month.
“He was so excited,” Mealing Sr. said. “He was running around in circles out of excitement. He didn’t know where he was at, he just knew it was someplace he wanted to be.”
The young Mealing didn’t know who Gobert was then. And he probably didn’t know who he was on Thursday. He wasn’t alone.
When Gobert entered a room in the upstairs of the Utah Jazz practice facility with a red Santa hat on, there wasn't mass hysteria. In fact, it was just the opposite. When you have struggled to find a place to sleep, watching a Jazz game isn’t too high on the priority list.
But if you had asked one of the kids who Santa was at the end of the night, they may have just said a 7-foot-1 NBA center.
The kids were shy at first, exchanging nervous smiles and confused waves at Gobert. But after Gobert had called all of them all up by their individual names, handed them a stack of presents, and a warm smile, they were beaming.
“This is something that they don’t often get to do because of financial barriers for them and this is just an amazing opportunity for them,” Family Promise Salt Lake executive director Wendy Kelly said.
And an opportunity that Gobert is happy to provide.
“You don’t choose where you are born, you don’t choose where you are from,” Gobert said. “To be able to do something to brighten their lives and their Christmas and their day, it has no price. Just to see how happy they were. They were all a little shy at the beginning and didn’t know who I was, but it was great to see how happy they were afterward.”
While the kids opened their gifts, Gobert took his time wandering around and seeing their smiling faces. He watched as a kid opened up an official NBA basketball — and then grabbed a Sharpie to sign it for him. He smiled as a young boy admired his new bike. And he choked up a little as a young girl cried tears of joy over her gifts.
“It’s not just giving money and all that, but being a leader and inspiring all these kids,” Gobert said. “No matter where you’re from, you can become who you want to become. Hopefully, in a few years, some of these kids will be doing the same thing I’m doing today.”
As Mealing Jr. slowly unwrapped his final present, his eyes lit up.
It was a big red truck.
Like Gobert, he’s probably going to remember that one for a long time.