Felicia Dukes and her children received a New Year’s present they aren’t likely to ever forget: The destitute family will live in a fully-furnished home in 2013, thanks to the generosity of Los Angeles lawyer Tony Tolbert.

Dukes had been sharing a room with three of her children at Alexandria House, a shelter for homeless women and children, when she received the incredible offer.

“They had a young man that wanted to donate their house to you for a year,” Dukes recounted being told by a shelter administrator in a CBS News interview. “And I’m looking at her, like, what? Like — Are you serious?”

Tolbert was serious. The 51-year-old African American, who is associate director of outreach at the UCLA School of Law and mentor to Black law students, said giving up his fully-furnished L.A. house, rent-free to a family he did not know was his act of giving back.

“You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Oprah,” Tolbert said. “We can do it wherever we are, with whatever we have, and for me, I have a home that I can make available.”

The gesture was triggered by a magazine article, according to the L.A.Times, that described how a family sold their house, moved into a smaller replacement house and gave the $800,000 proceeds from the sale to charity.

“It just struck me how powerful a gesture that was,” Tolbert told the Times. “It challenged me to think about what I could do, where I might have some overflow in my life.”

His decision to provide a rent-free house to a homeless family marked the second time he has used the modest, but well-appointed home in Los Angeles’ solidly Black middle class Crenshaw District to give back to the less fortunate.

The first time came two years ago when he moved out of the home, which he has occupied solo for ten years, to allow a single mother with three children who was living in a shelter for abused women to rent it for $1 a month for a year, imposing only one rule, according to the Times: “Whatever has to happen to keep things drama free, that’s what I need you to do.”

The success of that gesture lead him to seek another needy tenant to occupy the house that still has his grandmother’s antique quilt and walls festooned with fine art.

The Harvard-educated attorney has lived with his mother, Marie Tolbert, ever since. His father is in a nursing home. Mrs. Tolbert said she had asked her son if he was crazy to make such a grand gesture, still, she was not surprised.

“He is so giving, and he’s always been that way,” she told CBS.

Tolbert’s big-heartedness is part of a legacy inherited from his father, Jimmy Tolbert. An entertainment lawyer in L.A., the elder Tolbert was always helping down-on-their-luck persons, and there was often someone extra living in their house as far as he could recall, the younger attorney said.

Tolbert became choked up when talking about his father, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, but he shared some of what he was taught at his father’s knee.

“Kindness creates kindness. Generosity creates generosity. Love creates love,” he said. “And I think if we can share some of that and have more stories about people doing nice things for other people, and fewer stories about people doing horrible things to other people, that’s a better world.”

In Dukes’ world, things are better than she could imagine. Not only do she and her children have shelter, but she’s now reunited with her eldest son, who could not live with them at Alexandria House.

“My heart just fills up and stuff, um….I’m just really happy,” Dukes said tearfully.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO