- R&B star Ne-Yo brought holiday gifts to foster kids in six cities
- He and his mother run a foundation that helps underprivileged kids
- Ne-Yo, a father of two, tells the kids he also grew up without a lot of opportunities
Five hundred kids screamed when singer Ne-Yo walked in on their holiday party on a recent Saturday bearing gifts and a message of hope.
"This is the first famous person I actually met," exclaimed Tha Banks, 16, with a huge smile. Banks, a sports fan, got a new football autographed by the R&B superstar.
Banks isn't Ne-Yo's typical fan -- he and the other teens at the party are part of Florida's foster care system, all seeking a life free from neglect and abuse.
For the past five years, Shaffer "Ne-Yo" Smith has visited underprivileged children across the country, bringing toys, games, shoes and clothing as part of his charity's annual "giving tour."
Ne-Yo and his mother, who is president of his foundation, recently visited six cities in six days, bringing Christmas gifts to more than 3,000 kids at Boys and Girls clubs, group homes and in foster care. He also talks to the children about his personal experiences.
"I grew up pretty much like you all," Ne-Yo told the teens at the central Florida foster home. "We didn't have a lot of anything ... there was no silver spoon in my mouth."
A father of two himself, Ne-Yo said he sees his children in the faces of the kids he meets at these events.
"It's hard for me to fathom any parent that would abandon their kids for whatever reason," said Ne-Yo, the father of a 1-year-old and a 3-month-old. "That doesn't compute with me."
The holiday party was organized by the Kids House of Seminole County, which cares for 2,300 kids each year between the ages of 3 and 18, including victims of neglect, and others who witness domestic violence, or experience physical or sexual abuse, according to Marcie Dearth of Kids House.
"This is an annual party that kids host every year, but we never have had the celebrity presence that we did this year," Dearth said, calling Ne-Yo's visit "a lifetime experience."
The kids frost cookies and decorate stockings for the holiday season -- a tough time for these children, who are separated from their families.
"These events help fill that void, that excitement of the holiday spirit that all kids should have," said John Cooper, assistant secretary of operations for the Florida Department of Children and Families.
More than 400,000 children are in the foster care system in the United States, according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.
With about 19,000 kids in foster care, Florida has the fourth-largest number of kids in state care, behind California, New York and Texas, according to the 2010 report.
At the party, volunteers handed out wrapped presents donated by Ne-Yo's charity, the Compound Foundation; Toys for Tots; Coca-Cola; Mattel; Ubisoft and other corporate partners.
Destiny Molina, 15, unwraps her gift: a box filled with bottles of nail polish.
"You know what's funny," she says. "The girls at the other (foster) house stole my other nail polish, and I have been trying to buy it back."
She turns to her friend to ask what she got.
"Makeup," replies Karla Hurtado, 16. "Oh that's cute," Molina says.
Molina said this was going to be a good Christmas, something that doesn't happen every year for children in foster care.
"We don't have Christmases like this all the time," she said, a little choked up.
Ne-Yo told the room full of kids that he was living, breathing proof that you need to find something that you love to do and "stick with it." He said something that motivates yet frustrates him is hearing foster kids referred to as "forgotten children."
"All you need for success is drive, passion and one person to give a damn -- to give you a shot," Ne-Yo said. "And you have a room full of people like that."
Mercedes Noble, 17, says she was grateful to meet Ne-Yo, who she said seemed to be a real person, just like her.
The tall teen said foster care is not the best place to be at Christmas; everyone would rather be with their families.
Noble said, though, "It's way better to be here with people who love and care for us than be at home and probably getting beat."
With a big smile, the teen said, "I appreciate that he took time out of his life and come and show respect to us, kindness -- let us know that we are still human, we are still people and we still need love."