Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 | 10:01 a.m.
On Monday evening at the John C. Kish Boys & Girls Club, more than 500 kids and teens gathered in anticipation of an early Christmas celebration. However, judging by the swoons and shrieks emanating from the auditorium, it wasn’t Santa Claus who was bringing them presents.
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Ne-Yo kicked off his Sixth Annual Compound Foundation Giving Tour at the Henderson club, where St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson and he -- both Las Vegas natives -- signed autographs, posed for photographs and gave out toys, clothing, electronics and bicycles to underprivileged youth and foster care children.
The event, presented by Ne-Yo’s Compound Foundation and the Boys & Girls Club, will makes stops in five other cities across the country to deliver gifts to 500 children and teens in each community.
While this isn’t the first time Ne-Yo has brought his Giving Tour to Las Vegas, this year’s stop hit a particularly personal note with the singer, who, along with his sister, spent his teenage years at the Kish Club while their mother was busy working multiple jobs to support them as a single parent.
“This was our safe haven. We felt like we belong, we felt appreciated. This place definitely created some of the personality traits that have gotten me to where I am today, [such as] understanding that quitting is never an option. They made sure all the kids were aware that you were somebody special and that you should act accordingly,” he says, citing the Kish Club’s volunteer staff as being crucial for reinforcing their self-worth and ambition.
For his mother, Loraine Smith, who also is president of the Compound Foundation, returning to Henderson for the Giving Tour has been bittersweet and cathartic.
“Being back out here in Henderson brings back a lot of memories, a lot of them were good, some of them are not good. But ... we muddled through, we made it,” she says. “It’s really nice to be back in the neighborhood to kind of give perspective to what life has become, to make [us] more appreciative of where we’ve come from and where we are now.”
The children at Monday’s event, selected from the Boys & Girls Club and local group homes and foster care, were treated to a veritable cornucopia of gift options provided by Coca Cola, Creative Recreation, Ubisoft, Carol's Daughter and Toys for Tots. Preschoolers flocked to action figures, Barbies and Crayola art kits, while teens pored over Nike sneakers, curling irons and gift cards to their favorite stores. Many were able to take home their first bicycle thanks to donations from the nonprofit Together We Rise, which, like the Compound Foundation, benefits youth in foster care.
“It seems like with every year that passes, more and more people are walking the walk versus just talking the talk,” Ne-Yo says of the Giving Tour’s evolution over the past six years, which has expanded its partnerships and the number of kids its serves. “More and more people are willing to help just make for a bigger and better Christmas for the people that matter, which are the kids.”
Those people include Jackson, who, as a fellow Las Vegan, was eager to lend his star power to the tour.
“I believe in giving back to the community that you come from. I believe in giving kids a reason to dream and aspire. We’re from the same neighborhoods that they’re from,” says Jackson, whose own foundation, SJ39, is focused on promoting educational values and resources in Southern Nevada and elsewhere. “Me being an athlete and [Ne-Yo] being an entertainer, most kids desire to be that, but then they put education second. ... I want them to see that dreams do come true, that I was able to be a great student and a great athlete while doing both at the same time.”
Ne-Yo similarly hopes that his return to the Kish Club will work to pay forward the values tied to success and ambition that he gained growing up there.
“I’m proof. And I feel like in a place like Las Vegas, the kids need to see it. They need me to come back and say, ‘Yup, this is the Boys & Girls Club that I was at, that’s the pool table that I got beat at regularly. That’s the basketball court where I realized I can’t play basketball. They need to see it and hear it and experience it so that it becomes real for them.”
“And they need to understand,” his mother adds, “that you never forget where you come from.”