CAMBRIDGE — On the coldest night of the year, warmth filled the air in the Royal Sonesta Hotel grand ballroom as Isaiah Thomas helped the Celtics throw a holiday party for the families who lost their homes in the 10-alarm fire down the street in East Cambridge on December 3.
Joined by Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons, city manager Louis DePasquale and other community leaders, Thomas and the Celtics created a night of fun and games for the families after everyone miraculously survived a blaze that took out a small East Cambridge neighborhood just north of Kendall Square.
For a group of families and individuals who have been scrambling to piece their lives back together, it was a now rare night of fun and relaxation. The walls to the ballroom were dotted with a seemingly endless buffet, while the far corner had everything from NBA 2K to cornhole. Children were handed out new toys by Isaiah before he handed the attending young adults free backpacks from the venerable Harvard Square sneaker store Concepts.
“There's nothing more important than Cambridge and this community,” Thomas said to the crowd. “It’s the holidays, so to see you all smile makes me smile.”
Thomas, who lives and works nearby, spoke of how he was pushed by his wife Kayla to do something for the community when they heard of the devastation of the fire. He readily agreed and set in motion a plan with his charitable partner One World and the Celtics to coordinate the event.
“This is my job. This is what I’m blessed to do,” Thomas told me. “I got a platform that I try to use and I try to give back as much as I can to the communities that I’m a part of. This is a time of need for these families and I’m just trying to do the best job I possibly can to help out.”
It was a joyous celebration, a first for those displaced in the weeks since the fire.
“It’s like new years eve. It’s really exciting,” Mayor Simmons told me. “I’m just overwhelmed with joy just to see so many kids in particular having a good time. Playing games, playing basketball, eating French fries and chicken fingers.
It was somewhat of a reassuring reunion for the neighborhood, the first time everyone had been together in the same place after being dispersed into temporary housing throughout the area. It was an emotionally heavy, yet uplifting experience for Mayor Simmons.
“Someone said something to me that was really interesting. She says, ‘I got a chance to see all my neighbors and I know that they’re alright.’ And I thought that was tremendous. So it’s all the neighbors are here. They’re alright and they’re going to be better and it’s gonna get better for them.”
Thomas relished in the chance to help the community get better, spending several hours posing for photos and signing autographs. It took him 20 minutes to move from the buffet to his press conference because he stopped for literally every photo request.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I said that when I was going to be successful at whatever it is that I’m going to do, that I was going to give back to the communities that I was a part of,” Thomas told me. “This is one of the events that I love to do. I love interacting with kids. I love interacting with families and like I always say, it’s about me just shaking hands and taking pictures and being here so they know that I’m just like them. It’s about giving back.”
Isaiah has always been present and active in the community, headlining Celtics charitable and community endeavors with a persistence and energy that could be mistaken for a fourth quarter drive to the rim. But he also recognizes that many players across the league are not active in the community, something he would like to see change. While he said Thursday that players should not be bashed for not being active in the community, he encouraged his fellow athletes to increase their presence.
“Just show your face. I mean, I think that’s the most important thing. It’s not about your money. It’s more about your time. Because once these people in the community see that you’re just like them, that says more than any money you can ever give back to them.
“So I try to show my face as much as possible and show that I care. I mean, there’s people [here] going through way worse things than I’ve ever been through and they still got a smile on their face. Knowing that I’m blessed and able to give back is what I live for.”
His support was vital not just to bring attention to the continuing fund raising cause, but to breathe a sigh of relief into the lives of his neighbors.
“I think a lot of the events so far have been about getting services, about putting one’s life back together after a tragedy,” Cambridge city councilor Nadeem Manzen told me. “I think tonight has been about celebrating the holiday season. About celebrating one another, celebrating the vibe and resilience of this community.
“So to look at our sports stars, who are some of our greatest philanthropists in our community, I think we all feel honored that we can be the recipients of such a caring and supportive event.”
The event was part of an important first step to restore joy and sanity to the victims’ lives. With their neighborhood severely damaged, they have a journey ahead to rebuild and restore their community.
“They still have a community there that is very vibrant, so culturally, things are coming back,” Councilor Manzen said. “But each family will have its own story, its own trauma, its own needs. and I think its restoring their place in their community and making sure each family and each individual is taken care of financially, logistically and emotionally. That’s the main thing right now.”
The blaze prompted a significant response from the community, raising over $500,000 to the Cambridge Fire Fund in a matter of hours according to councilor Manzen. While the initial influx of donations was crucial for quickly providing support for those who lost their homes and property, there is still a long way to go for the city.
Only half of the displaced families currently have consistent housing according to the Mayor, as they continue to evaluate if they will be able to return to eventually restored homes where they once stood. While there have been material gifts flooding in, the Mayor emphasizes that money and housing are the primary focus.
“It’s really about money and if someone knows of a place where we can permanently house a family, that’s what we really need,” she said. “Material aid, we just can’t take that right now. We’re not set up for it. They really need funds so they can buy their own clothing, their own food, pay for their bills.”
“There is this interesting question, ‘What can people do besides donating?’ Councilor Manzen said. “And it’s like, listen, nothing is as valuable as liquid money, because it’s what allows us to send people food aid and shelter aid. It’s what allows us to continue appropriating resources that people need just to survive everything. Just from toiletries to schoolbooks – survive and thrive. I would really challenge people to dig deep and offer what they would hope to receive in a situation like this.
“To give food, to give clothes, to give toys is great in the holiday season. But it’s really not what’s being asked first and foremost. The first place commendation goes to those who can give dollars and after that, anything in keeping with generosity during this holiday season is appreciated. But it just doesn’t stack up in the same way in such an urgent and dire situation.”
You can help those in need by donating to the Cambridge Fire Fund, which will continue to need more funding after eclipsing its initial goal.