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Rapper, homeless as a child, gives back to South Bend shelter

– Ricki David's been on the other side of this window.

The 25-year-old South Bend hip-hop producer takes a plate of food – turkey, veggies, mashed potatoes and bread – from fiancée Charee Williams and hands it to a worker through the glass that greets everybody who walks off Michigan Street into the Center for Homeless.

The couple not only bring bags of meals for some of the 21 families housed at the shelter on this snowy Saturday, but they also have toys for the kids.

David used to be one of those kids.

Growing up in Michigan City, David bounced from shelter to shelter with his mother, sister and brother. He grew up homeless, often not knowing where his next meal would come from or whether God had forgotten about a little boy shivering too hard in the cold to sleep.

At Christmas.

"That's why I'm giving back on this holiday," David told the South Bend Tribune.

This snow-blasted Saturday also happens to be grandfather David Bila's birthday – or would have been.

"Grandpa died in July," David says. "He was a giving man. I'm also doing this because of him."

David showed up just before noon Saturday knowing full well how thankful a lonely family can be for somebody, anybody, who cares enough to put food in their stomach.

When that little boy in those Michigan City homeless shelters got a present to open for Christmas, it didn't matter what was inside.

"Around this time, we got one present each and a couple of dinners, but it wasn't really too much," David recalls.

"I can't really say what kind of toy it was," he adds. "I just looked at it as. ... I could just be thankful for what I'd get."

Girls will get a Barbie doll from David and Williams. In the boys' box, "There's a toy truck of some kind," he says.

"You should see them Christmas morning; ... their faces just light up," says Peter Lombardo, director of community involvement for the Center for the Homeless.

Noting that Christmas is the season for the Center's Adopt a Family program, Lombardo says toys donated to the center are usually filtered through the mothers.

"Mom wraps the present and gives it to her kids," Lombardo says. "So, they believe it's coming from Mom."

Countless mothers have been among the 55,000 men, women and children who have walked through the doors since the Center for the Homeless opened in November 1988.

In addition to providing a bed and hot meals for an average of 200 "guests" a day, the center links those who seek its shelter to programs and agencies tailored to help them get back on their feet and break the cycle of homelessness.

David says his mother used services available through Michigan City's social services programs to land a job in South Bend, which allowed David and his siblings to escape the hard homeless environment.

"When my mom got a decent job," David says, "she actually moved us out of shelter homes and moved another family (from one of the shelter homes) in with us."

Despite growing up on the streets where he "saw it all, everything," David managed to stay out of trouble.

Life is good now. He is a welder during the day, supporting his family – Williams, who says she just landed a job at Memorial Hospital "that I've been trying to get for seven years," and two daughters.

David also carves out a second career as a hip-hop artist, hawking beats, samples and videos through his South Bend-based company, Ricki David Productions.

Giving back to the community by way of donating meals and toys to homeless families and their children for Christmas is David's way of embracing his own homeless past.

Although, Williams admits, "It was my idea" to donate the meals and toys to the Center for the Homeless.

"I know, here, I've seen a lot of homeless on the streets," Williams says, counting the "blessings" of the couple's first house bought this year and her new job.

"We're fortunate," Williams says, "and some people aren't as fortunate."

David says it takes somebody with his background to fully appreciate the effect that donated meals and Christmas gifts have on those families at the Center for the Homeless.

What's past, he admits, remains vividly present when he walks through those doors on Michigan Street, especially when there's a blowing, freezing wind and a heavy snowstorm outside.

"I just appreciate what I get nowadays," David says. "It isn't about the materialistic things. I lived that life, so for me, it's just to be thankful. I grew up struggling all my life, but God blessed me with a lot of things.

"And that's why I'm giving back."