BY ANA RISANO || Staff Writer
Earl Wright, the founder of Project Santa, opened the warehouse door the other day to a space already overflowing with bicycles and other donated goods. Nearly 400 bikes sat ready to ride, with spare parts and tires piled along the walls.
Wright and his partner, Sharon Thompson, are excited this year for the 27th anniversary of Project Santa.
“It feels like the first time I did it — amazing,” Wright said. “It’s always amazing when you see the kids on Christmas day.”
The event has greatly increased in size since the first bike giveaway in 1995. Wright said he gave out 75 bicycles from the front yard of his home for the first Project Santa. In recent years, he and a small platoon of volunteers gave out upward of 1,000 bicycles from the Walmart Supercenter parking lot in Aberdeen. Last year, they gave about 860 bicycles to children.
Wright and Thompson hope to collect and give away more than 1,400 bicycles this year, including 800 new bikes. They have about 80 new ones right now.
Phil Benton, who works closely with Wright and Thompson, explained that bicycle prices have recently doubled, making it difficult to afford enough bikes of different sizes. They can buy two small bikes for $100 or one larger one for $200, a hard decision depending on how many families they hope to serve.
Only once did Project Santa run out of bicycles. Wright, seeing the upset children, invited the last few families to his house where he fixed up a handful of bikes for them.
Benton, an avid cycler, said he enjoys helping with the bike giveaway because of everything a bike can mean for a child. The bicycles aren’t just toys, he said, but a form of exercise, a way for kids to get outside and away from social media, and even to transport them to work once they are old enough.
This year will run similarly to previous years. Thompson said masks will not be mandatory but will be encouraged to protect the children from new strains of COVID-19. Volunteers will help children pick out their bikes while the parents wait nearby.
“The surprising thing is that when you try to get a child to take a new bike, and they’d rather have a used bike,” Thompson said. “It’s something, it’s really something.”
Wright and Thompson boasted about their volunteers, including employees from Sandhills Moving and Storage, and Rainbow Cycles. Sandhills Moving, an agent for Mayflower moving company, donates trucks to transport the bicycles from the warehouse to the giveaway location, and Rainbow Cycles provides bike assistance at the event for minor repairs, like low tires.
“Our volunteers are off the chain,” both said. “And we’re gonna need them this year.”
“If I could put my arms around all of them, plus the community that helps us, I would hug them all,” Thompson said.
Further, anyone from two to 92 years old can receive a bike, Wright said. If an older individual needs a bike to get to work, Wright will give them a bike.
Some families line up overnight to get a bike for their kids because they have nothing for Christmas. One family came from Greensboro last year.
Donations to Project Santa come from even farther away, including South Carolina and Hawaii. An anonymous donor from Hawaii has donated 10 bikes every year for over 10 years. There’s also a woman who gives $1,000 each year.
“It’s the joy and the happiness of it,” Thompson said. “And bringing spectators brought us more donations because they actually saw the expressions on the kids’ faces.”
Wright received the Governor’s Medallion for Volunteer Service, and in 2017, he was named Man of the Year by Moore County Foundation because of his work with Project Santa. He definitely fits the role of Santa’s right-hand-man.
The event will occur on Christmas Day at the Walmart Supercenter parking lot in Aberdeen. It runs from 8 a.m. to noon. The event will also feature free breakfast from Wildfire Woodfired Pizza, Sisters II Ice Cream and Sly Fox.
Bicycle and money donations are accepted. Benton asked for used bike donations to be operable or in decent condition with minor repairs. Contact Wright at (910) 639-9506 or Thompson at (910) 639-4048 for more details on bike donations.
Money donations can be made at Woodforest National Bank located inside the Walmart Supercenter in Aberdeen. Checks should be payable to Project Santa. Other information can be found at https://projectsantaofthesandhills.org/ or on their Facebook page.
“I’d still be like a kid out there myself,” Wright said. “I’d be running around like I done lost my head. I do it every year.”
Contact Ana Risano at (910) 585-6396 or firstname.lastname@example.org.