Christmas morning is a few months away, so Mr. Santa himself, Earl Wright, and his elves were busy last weekend focusing instead on the needs of families in Robbins and Vass, who have been hard hit by recent storms and flooding.
“People are going through a lot. We’ve been checking in and getting some donated clothes and water together. We want to help out as much as we can,” said Project Santa volunteer Sharon Thompson. “My heart is just broken for so many families.”
Project Santa got its start over 20 years ago, when Wright began refurbishing bicycles in his garage to give to local children. The son of a sharecropper, he never owned a bike as a child, but understands that it is a milestone, especially for children from low-income families. His little side project has grown into a yearlong endeavor, and Wright was recognized with the N.C. Governor’s Award for Volunteer Service for his work.
However, each year requires a tremendous amount of planning and resources. Project Santa is in need of used bicycles to repair and money to buy new ones, cans of WD-40, inner tubes, rags and supplies. They also need to coordinate trucks and volunteer drivers to pick up donations and transport them to Wright’s warehouse; then to the former IGA Fresh Foods parking in Southern Pines before dawn on Christmas morning; and then to Robbins for a New Year’s Day giveaway.
“We would like to give away 1,700 bikes this year,” said Wright, “but Sharon wants 1,800. She said we can do it, so we are going to see.”
“I’m not going to say it is impossible, we are going to dig in and do our best.”
Thompson laughed, and said that Wright knows she will always go for the higher number.
“We want to do something a little extra this year, but that is a secret for now,” she said. “But we have to look at all the devastation that is going on. People are donating to help with recovery and we want to make sure at least these families don’t have to buy a bike for their children.
“We do this for the love of the children: They are our future,” Thompson added. “I’m going to do what I have to do. Love should start in the house, but if it does not, we want these children to know that we are here for you.”
One important caveat to know before you go :Bicycles are only given to children. And all children are asked to bring a donation of three cans of non-perishable food in exchange for the bicycle.
“The kids have to be there on Christmas morning so they can help pick out their own bike,” said Wright. “If you don’t have a kid with you, you can’t get a bike. I’m not trying to be hard, but that is how it is. This is what we have to do.”
The organization — not just the families they serve — has also endured hardship over the past few years. In 2013, about 100 bicycles were stolen from a warehouse in Aberdeen, where they were being stored before the Christmas Day giveaway. Then this grass-roots group was rocked by theft and vandalism in 2016, when a storage trailer filled to the brim with bikes destined for a New Year’s Day giveaway in Robbins was targeted. More than 80 bicycles disappeared in the wee hours of Dec. 26, and many more left in the trailer were damaged.
Wright said he felt devastated and considered giving up after the 2016 incident, but was bolstered by community spirit and assistance.
With his goal to deliver 1,800 bikes to needy children this holiday season, he’s hoping 2018 will be his biggest ever.
To volunteer in the Project Santa workshop, to donate a bicycle or help with fundraising efforts, call Earl Wright at (910) 639-9506 or Sharon Thompson at (910) 639-4048.
Contact Laura Douglass at (910) 693-2474 or firstname.lastname@example.org.