It wasn’t until high school that Tito Rodriguez, also known as Long Beach’s “Hood Santa,” first celebrated Thanksgiving—a memory that has stuck with him through adulthood.
“I walked in, I saw a big meal, and all my family was happy,” Rodriguez said. “That stuck in the back of my head—I said, ‘Man, every family should be able to enjoy that.’”
Rodriguez grew up in Long Beach, moving up and down 15th Street through his childhood, he said.
“I grew up extremely poor, didn’t have much as a kid, and when I was 6 years old, my dad committed suicide on Christmas Eve,” Rodriguez said. “From then, we were really poor.”
As Rodriguez headed into his teenage years, he “got a little bit crazy,” and when he was 17, he was arrested for robbing a 7-Eleven, Rodriguez said.
After time in juvenile hall, Rodriguez was ready to turn his attention elsewhere, and he became immersed in the music industry, even going on to produce for Snoop Dogg, he said.
“All those lessons molded me into who I am today,” Rodriguez said.
Sponsorships started to roll in, and Rodriguez started receiving clothing, shoes, and more from companies such as Diamond Supply Co.
“I would always think about how poor I was, and how we didn’t have anything, Rodriguez said. “Now I got all these cool guys giving me stuff.”
He was gifted so much, that one day, Rodriguez found himself about to throw away a shirt he’d only worn once.
Knowing he had to figure out a way to give back, Rodriguez decided to begin gifting the items he’d received through sponsorships.
Rodriguez planned to just drive through Long Beach and give away items to whoever he saw—but first, he said, needed an outfit to appear official.
With Christmas around the corner, Rodriguez purchased a $12 paper-mache and cotton Santa Claus suit from eBay.
He headed to 17th Street and Junipero Avenue, an area with many low-income families, in what ended up being a half Santa outfit—his pants had quickly ripped and he had to wear jeans, Rodriguez said.
“There’s this little kid that sees me from the second story, he’s waving me down, he’s going crazy . . . he’s super fired up,” Rodriguez said. “He walks right up to me, he taps me on the chest, he says, ‘Hey, man, you’re the Hood Santa, ‘cause Santa doesn’t come over here.”
That was when Hood Santa was born.
Rodriguez and his partner, HJ Chong, wanted to continue their efforts and began posting on social media and looking for local children to gift. Soon, the messages started coming in.
In the 12 years since then, Rodriguez has continued the tradition of gifting lower-income youth with clothes, shoes and even laptops, but with one catch: To be gifted, you had to have good grades, Rodriguez said.
With this stipulation, kids are able to be rewarded for their efforts, while inspiring others to work harder, Rodriguez said.
“Little kids, they’re hoping and they’re wishing for something,” Rodriguez said. “The hood doesn’t lack talent. It just lacks resources. It lacks opportunities.”
Over the years, Rodriguez began to increase his partnerships and collaborations, and in 2016, Rodriguez and Chong turned their efforts into an official nonprofit, becoming the Local Hearts Foundation, whose services have since expanded to include an annual backpack drive, a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway, and for the first time this year, an Easter-themed pancakes and Easter baskets giveaway as well.
“I never had a backpack, I never got to go school shopping,” Rodriguez said. “These events are super personal to me, and that’s why I put my all into them.”
The Local Hearts Foundation is currently gearing up for its annual turkey giveaway for Thanksgiving, an event that also engages Long Beach’s elderly community, Rodriguez said. Last year, the organization distributed over a thousand turkeys, and Rodriguez has his sites set on raising $30,000 to support families through the holidays this year.
Rodriguez’s efforts have received national attention: In October, Rodriguez was recognized for the second time by Points of Light, a philanthropy-based organization. On Oct. 24, he was acknowledged during the organization’s fourth annual George H.W. Bush Points of Light Awards Celebration as an “inspiration spotlight,” which recognizes 20 change-makers across the country.
“I was surprised because I already got recognized once,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s amazing because we need the push. It makes it even sweeter on our end to be recognized by them.”
Looking forward, Rodriguez hopes to open a center in Long Beach, specifically focused on working with troubled youth, he said, and he is currently in talks with an official from Adobe to introduce programming to Long Beach youth.
But in the meantime, making an impact for local youth every holiday season is at the forefront of Rodriguez’s mind.
“When we do our events and kids walk out with Hood Santa drawings and little personal messages, those stay with me forever,” Rodriguez said.
Donate to Local Hearts Foundation here.