’Twas Christmas Day, 10 years ago, when a poor drug dealer named Lee Roy Jones went to get the money he was owed from a sale of crack cocaine. His debtor was a man strung out on an $80-a-day addiction, holed up in an empty duplex. The man's three young stepchildren were playing in the yard alone. Inside, the home was nearly empty. The kids didn't even have food. "They had nothing, and I knew why," Jones said. "I felt like I helped destroy that family." Racked with guilt, Jones drove that day to a local discount store. He bought a shopping cart full of toy trucks, dolls and an Easy-Bake Oven. When he returned bearing gifts, the kids lit up with excitement.
In that moment, Jones saw no ghosts of Christmas past, and his heart didn't grow in size. But something changed.
He stopped dealing drugs and worked to turn his life around. He carried in his heart and mind the memory of how happy those children looked and how it felt to do something right.
The day gave birth to a Christmas tradition, in which Jones brings gifts to the crowded apartments and rundown neighborhoods hundreds of local children call home.
Every year, the living room of his duplex in the East Gateway area of Clearwater runs over with stuffed dogs, action figures, basketballs, board games, crayons and dolls.
A liaison to the working poor, Jones, 50, compiles lists of kids in need, then shows up unannounced, his 6-foot-3 figure draped in a bright-red Santa suit. Speaking in a low bellow, he calls himself Brother Claus.
His is an unconventional Christmas story, and he its imperfect hero: with a guilty past, an uncertain future and a poverty he can't ignore.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm doing this for me," Jones said. "Like I'm doing this to stay alive."
But on Friday morning, as he visited a home behind a pizzeria, sweat soaking his cotton-ball beard, it became clear Brother Claus was working for another reason:
The boy on the other side of the door.
Jones said he and his four brothers were raised on a farm in Montgomery, Ala., by an alcoholic uncle and a sexually abusive aunt. He did not know his father; his mother traveled across the state for work. His childhood was marked by toil and desperation.
At age 6, he woke up before sunrise most mornings to milk cows and feed calves. He dropped out of school shortly after reaching his teens. At home, he and his brothers were forced to sleep in the kitchen. To feed themselves, they stole dog food from the barn.
When Jones was 15, he moved in with his mother and stepfather in Birmingham. That December, he received his first Christmas gift: a brown Winchester-style BB gun, which he used to hunt birds in the woods.
"Boy, I ain't never been so happy," he said. "I think about it now, and I can still see it in my head."
Decades later, he realized sharing that experience as Brother Claus wouldn't be easy. Working in auto shops, rebuilding starters and alternators or hauling scrap metal to the junkyard, he didn't have much to give of his own. He and his wife, Inell, 62, don't even buy each other gifts.
"We tell each other: Want to get me a present? Go up and pay the light bill," he said.
His workshop was his living room, where he bagged gifts and planned his delivery routes. His saving grace became local stores and auto shops, where donors began offering presents and passing along names of children to help.
"I want to tell them (thanks), but I cry too god-dang much," Jones said. "They be pumping blood in me. They be making my heart beat."
Last Christmas Eve, he handed out gifts from the back of his sister's minivan in the parking lot of a Stop-N-Shop. Neighborhood kids appeared out of nowhere, nearly in shock.
By the time they had run out of gifts, they counted nearly 200 kids.
On Friday morning, Brother Claus knocked on the door of a small house behind a pizzeria. Here lived Crystal Quinones, 25, a 7-Eleven cashier, and her husband, Mark Padilla, 24, who recently lost his job.
Michelle Smith, Quinones' manager, knew Jones' wife from buying Avon cosmetics. She told Brother Claus the family could use some help. When Smith had recently taken Quinones' 7-year-old son, Jason Ortiz, to school, she noticed the boy's shoes were falling apart.
When the door opened, Jason and his parents were standing by their Christmas tree, smiling.
"I got something for you, little man," Jones told Jason. He handed over three wrapped gifts, which Jason's parents told him he had to wait to open. "Say thank you, Jason," Quinones said, and then she said thank you herself.
Brother Claus drove on, past yard sales and broken homes, in his sleigh, a yellow Ford Ranger, which he borrowed from a friend.
On to the home of DeAsia Rayner, 5, a girl with pink-bead braids who received a Mermaid Hair Play Set, and her brother Delon, 7, who responded to his new boxing gloves by jumping barefoot on the couch.
On past his car that needs work, his bills that need paying.
On to the home of Edna Young and her daughters, Breanna Galli, 7, and Brandi Galli, 4, whose gifts were nearly wider than she could hold.
"Can I get a hug?" Jones asked, crouching down at their side. "Santa needs a hug. That's what keeps Santa alive."
Then he hurried back to the truck, off to pick up more gifts, the beginning of a Christmas weekend that would leave him exhausted and renewed.
As he drove away, Brandi could be seen staring out a window, mouth agape, looking amazed.
Drew Harwell can be reached cat (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]