Born and raised in Long Beach, Tito Rodriguez — often referred to as the city's "Hood Santa" — has been helping people around his neighborhood for as long as he can remember.
In 2018, he formalized his philanthropic endeavors as a co-founder of the nonprofit Local Hearts Foundation. Since then, he's garnered national attention with grants from the Helpful Honda People, GoFundme support and partnerships with other area nonprofits.
"We try to serve the underserved, which is the poorest of the poor," he said. "Like where I was raised, the Sixth District, so to see it still struggling, I decided to focus efforts in that neighborhood and neighborhoods like it."
Rodriguez's own life hasn't been an easy one.
When he was 6 years old, his father committed suicide, making it even more difficult for him and his mother to make ends meet.
"We were poor," he said. "My mom worked to take care of us.
"As I got older and I started making music, and I got to make friends who had businesses and were doing well, I got to thinking, you know, I want to do something for the kids."
He started his career in music, working as a producer alongside former Death Row Record artists Snoop Dogg and Big Tray Deee. With platinum records in his resumé, he co-founded the punk band The Pricks.
But he ultimately traded his music career for the nonprofit world.
His philanthropic work started with handing out food and toys to families, but he wanted to do more, he said. A friend suggested purchasing a Santa suit to use around Christmas, and the nonprofit mission blossomed from there.
"I went on eBay and bought a $12 Santa suit that was made out of something like paper mâché," he said. "It was uncomfortable, it was sticking to me, but here we are."
He said that he started introducing himself to neighbors and getting to know folks in the community to gauge the need for supplies or items for families. When he sees a need, he reaches out with bags of food, hygiene items and toys. He was quickly welcomed, and kids began to take notice of his jolly efforts.
"This kid came running down the block towards me when I was about to make one of my deliveries," Rodriguez said. "He walked up to me and said, 'Hey man, you're the Hood Santa, because the regular Santa don't come here'."
His work continued to grow increasingly more demanding. The need for help didn't stop, and Rodriguez's name became synonymous with "Hood Santa."
And his work hasn't gone unnoticed.
He was honored with a mural of his likeness outside of I-nhale Smoke Shop (1055 Redondo Ave.) earlier this year, as well as receiving a certificate of recognition from the city of Long Beach for his Hood Santa work.
"I got platinum plaques, I got gold plaques, those don't compare to the moms who express how thankful they are to have turkeys this year. Or the parents who said that they didn't have money to buy their children toys this year," he said. "That has turned it into a fulltime job because you want to keep doing more."
Rodriguez said that the nonprofit is in need of a van, as well as volunteers. People can help the cause by making a donation on the Local Hearts Foundation's website, localheartsfoundation.org.
For more information, visit the website.
Stephanie Stutzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.