KIPP Endeavor Academy sixth-grader Anthony Dice II beamed with pride as he gushed about the assortment of Power Rangers toys piled in his shopping cart Tuesday morning at the Toys R Us store in Noland Fashion Square in Independence.
Anthony and 14 other students from impoverished neighborhoods on Kansas City’s east side, who take part in leadership/character development classes at the Hope Center, gleefully ran amok through aisle after aisle of playthings thanks to the generosity of injured St. Louis Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines.
Gaines, 23, a Fort Osage and Missouri graduate (officially, as of Saturday), started 15 games as a rookie for St. Louis in 2014, but he has been sidelined this season after surgery to repair a Lisfranc fracture suffered during training camp.
If there’s an upshot, rather than packing for the Rams’ two-week West Coast swing through Seattle and San Francisco, Gaines soaked in the joy as 15 kids worked out how to spend the $100 gift cards he’d provided each one.
“Being able to come back home and give back to the community, it means the world to me,” Gaines said. “It doesn’t matter about the money or the presents really, but it’s about knowing these kids are having a good Christmas.”
Marvin Daniels, the charity’s executive director, said Gaines’ camp — spearheaded by former Fort Osage classmate Sarah Iloilo and his agent, Josh Arnold — was searching for an charitable organization that served underprivileged kids near his old stomping ground. They found a perfect marriage, Daniels said, with the Hope Center, which was established in 1998.
“Our focus is developing healthy communities, where the vulnerable can have hope and flourish,” said Daniels.
The Hope Center’s leadership/character development program teaches decision-making skills, emphasizing right from wrong, and also focused on time management and community service, Daniels said.
“We learn how to make a difference in the world and what path to follow that’s going to get me the best results in my life,” said Raytown Middle School eighth-grader Bracey Odums, 13.
As a child, Gaines met former Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, an encounter that resonates even today. Gaines hoped to create a similarly lasting impression — “just a memory that they’ll never forget,” he said.
“One of those kids I was walking around with could be the next me, the next Jamaal Charles, the next Tom Brady, the next President (Barack) Obama,” Gaines said.
“I didn’t have much growing up,” Gaines said. “I was just like one of these kids running around and hoping for something for Christmas. Fortunately, there were times where people would give back to me or my family, but my dad (Edwin) was always about: ‘It’s not the presents. It’s the thought.’ He instilled that in me.”
Still, for the kids, the presents were pretty sweet and very much appreciated.
“It’s cool, because you can see how God touched (Gaines’) heart,” Anthony said.
Anthony picked out several Power Rangers toys — “stuff that I really like and is super cool,” including “the awesomest sword” — but he also picked out some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys to give to a friend from a single-parent family he met at church.
“I did not know who (Gaines) was,” Bracey said. “I do not follow football … but I feel like he knows where he came from, and he appreciates the people who helped him get there. It’s really nice.”
Bracey pooled her money with her sister — Carla Dominick, 10, a fourth-grader at Eastwood Hills Elementary School — and got an Xbox “Just Dance 2015” video game, which the family can share.
Bracey got some headphones for herself and matching sisters necklaces with Carla, but they also used part of the money on a present for their brother.
Gaines — a first-team All-SEC selection as a senior, when he finished with five interceptions and 75 tackles — said he recently had the screws inserted his foot removed and will rehab in Arizona this winter.
“I’m back on the road to recovery,” said Gaines, who expects to remain limited into the preseason but hopes to return to action next season.
Of course, whether he’ll be playing in St. Louis or Los Angeles, if the Rams franchise returns to Southern California, remains undetermined.
“I wish I knew,” Gaines said with a laugh. “I have no clue. Players are meant to play the game, regardless whether it’s St. Louis or California or wherever they’re playing at. We don’t have too much say in it. We should just win wherever we go.”