Ten-year-old Riley Christensen and her mother, Lynn, were huddled in front of the family computer, checking out models and prices of bikes. “Let’s pick one out for Dad’s birthday,” Christensen suggested to her daughter.
As Christensen scrolled down the home page of the Bike Rack, a shop in their town of St. Charles, Illinois, a video link for Project Mobility caught her eye. She clicked on it out of curiosity. The clip told how Bike Rack co-owner Hal Honeyman had created an organization to provide specially engineered bicycles to people with disabilities. It showed the happy faces of those who were now riding them—accident victims, injured veterans, and children with disabilities, including Hal’s own son, who had been born with cerebral palsy.
“I’m going to buy a bike for one of those kids,” Riley told her mother. Two days later, she showed Christensen a letter she had written asking for donations: “I think it’s amazing for a guy to make bikes for kids who can’t walk,” the letter said. “I saw how happy a boy was when he got one … I’m writing to ask for your help.”
Christensen was blown away by her daughter’s effort, but doubts quickly emerged. The cost of just one of those special bikes could be as high as $4,000. Riley could never raise the money. Nonetheless, her letter went out to 75 relatives and friends. Within three days, checks and cash began arriving. Then word got around about Riley’s campaign, and as Christmas neared, more and more donations rolled in. The teen ultimately raised more than $12,000, enough to pay for seven bikes.
Last Christmas Eve, Riley pulled on a Santa hat and delivered the bicycles to three of the lucky kids: Ava, a 13-year-old girl with spina bifida; Jenny, a 15-year-old girl with cerebral palsy; and Rose, a 4-year-old girl with a rare genetic disorder. “This is the best Christmas I ever had,” said Riley.
She and Ava have since ridden together. “When I ride, I like to go fast, get sweaty, and feel the breeze,” Riley says. “So does Ava. She pumps with her arms, not her feet, but she really flies.”
Riley is determined to keep her campaign going every holiday season. “I want kids to feel the wind in their faces,” she says.
For the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville, Indiana, the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas brings the excited anticipation of another phone call from an old friend. Last year, it came while Terry Haynie, vice president of development, was knuckling down to serious work the afternoon of November 30. “Do you know what time of year it is?” a mischievous-sounding male voice asked. This signaled the start of a mysterious annual treasure hunt. “Yes, sir,” Haynie replied. “It’s Pete’s time!”
Every year, the caller, who identifies himself only as Pete, telephones the center with a clue-filled message that sends the staff on a search of the two-story building and its grounds to find Pete’s donation to children with disabilities. In the past, this Secret Santa has stashed money in a snowman cookie jar and attached it to candy canes hung from a tree by the parking lot. Last year, his instructions led staff members out the door, around to the back of the building, and toward a Dumpster. Placed in a gift bag on the ground near the Dumpster was a miniature tin Christmas tree hung with 30 crisp $100 bills. At the sight of the treasure, the staff members always applaud, wave, and yell, “Thank you, Pete!” in the hope that he is watching.
Since 1990, Pete has donated nearly $65,000 to the center, which serves 5,000 adults and children in need of physical and medical rehabilitation in a 30-county stretch of Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. Pete asks only that his gift help the children served by the center. “He always says to use his gifts to make Christmas merrier for the kids whose families can’t afford it,” Haynie reports. Last year, 70 children got new clothes and toys because of Pete. And every year, his donation comes with a note on purple paper that promises, “You will hear from me again!”
A Brilliant Display
One morning last December, Bill McDonald read in the paper that a local man, Joe Day, was sick with small-cell lung cancer. That meant Day couldn’t assemble the magnificently lit, handcrafted Christmas displays that had made his house in Versailles, Indiana, an annual holiday pilgrimage site for as many as 95,000 people.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without Joe’s lights, thought McDonald. Somebody has got to help this guy, he decided.
Day had made his own quick decision 33 Christmases ago when he came home one afternoon from his job as an electrician and found his five-year-old grandson, Nicholas, waiting. “What do you want to do today?” Day asked.
“Let’s build a reindeer, Papa,” Nicholas said. They fashioned one using wood from a fallen tree, then set it out on the lawn and lit up its cherry-red nose for the holidays.
Each year, Day added to his handi-work, placing reindeer on a track above his roof and winding lights as if they were electric vines around his windows and doors. Eventually thousands of lights, figures, mannequins, and models filled his yard and spilled into his sister’s property next door.
Then came December 2009. Day’s cancer, diagnosed in March, had spread to his liver and spleen. After 19 rounds of chemotherapy and 43 radiation treatments, he was too tired and despondent to celebrate Christmas.
Until McDonald called.
“You don’t know me,” McDonald said, “but I want to help you get your lights up.” Through word of mouth, McDonald and his wife, Toni, enlisted the Knights of Columbus, the Masons, the Lions, local firefighters, friends, and strangers to set up Day’s displays. For two days, more than 100 volunteers climbed in and around Day’s house and yard, following his hand-drawn diagrams that showed where everything should go.
On the evening of December 12, with crowds of volunteers cheering him on, Day flipped the switch and lit up the spectacle. “This is what the Lord wanted us to do,” says McDonald, “to pull together, and be together, and help one another.”
Day’s cancer is in remission, and he looks forward to Christmas 2010. “In their hearts,” Day says, “people love to give.” He is confident that his brilliant displays will continue to light up the darkness for many years to come because Bill McDonald has promised that he’ll get the job done.
A Family Saved
Lt. Bobby Qualls was shopping when he received a text message: Fire on Beechmont, one-story house, child trapped inside. “I was picking out gifts for the family our engine house adopted for Christmas,” remembers Qualls, who has been fighting fires in Memphis for 24 years. “I had this sinking feeling as I got in my car and headed over.”
The last time Qualls had been on Beechmont Street was to install smoke detectors at the Bateman-Tubbs home. He’d been on a secret mission to see if they needed an extra boost during the holidays. There he discovered that the four Bateman-Tubbs children were sleeping on bare mattresses, and he found two of the boys playing outside in 30-degree weather with no shoes or coats.
Qualls learned that Leonard Tubbs was doing his best to make ends meet laying floors while Kimberly Bateman stayed home with the kids.
“When Bobby told me his team wanted to be Secret Santas and buy my kids toys, at first I thought we didn’t need any help,” Bateman recalls. “It really touched me. I told him what the kids really needed was warm clothes.”
That’s exactly what Qualls was shopping for on December 9, 2008: winter jackets for Christopher, seven; JoJo, four; Madison, one; and two-month-old Charles. While driving over to Beechmont Street, he dialed Bateman’s cell phone. She answered on the first ring, screaming, “The house is on fire—JoJo’s trapped inside!”
By the time Qualls reached the house, the family had gotten out, but their home was severely damaged. His coworkers had found JoJo hiding under a pile of clothes in a back bedroom. He had stopped breathing and had been given CPR and rushed to the hospital. Qualls learned that JoJo was now on life support and might not make it through the night. He rushed to the hospital with Lt. Mark Eskew, who placed a stuffed teddy bear in a firefighter’s suit on JoJo’s bed.
“I just kept praying my little boy would open his eyes,” Bateman recalls. “There was nothing else I could do. They were pumping soot as black and thick as tar out of his lungs and stomach for days.”
After a few days, though, JoJo regained consciousness, and the tubes were taken out of his throat. While he began to slowly recover, the local newspaper and TV stations got hold of the story, and the Secret Santa mission of Qualls and his fellow firefighters snowballed. Before long, the fire station was overflowing with boxes of toys, food, toiletries, towels, and clothes. People called, wanting to donate furniture and appliances too. By December 23, Bateman and Tubbs had moved their kids into a new rental home. By Christmas Eve, JoJo was ready to leave the hospital, and the firefighters were ready to deliver the family their very own Christmas miracle.
“These guys aren’t just firefighters,” says Bateman, “they’re our guardian angels. If they hadn’t installed a smoke detector that first day they came to our house, we wouldn’t have known when the fire started. Then they went the extra ten miles to give us a Christmas.”
Reported by Jennifer Haupt
When Delwyn Collins was a kid growing up in the projects of Fort Worth, Texas, he was labeled handicapped with a learning disability and sent to a special education school. His teachers never suspected that Collins was a genius at caring: Today the 52-year-old cafeteria worker at Tampa General Hospital is nothing less than an angel to hundreds of foster children in Hills-borough County, Florida. These children—many with special needs and often moved from home to home—tug hard at Collins’s heart. Christmas 2010 will mark the 21st year he has set up a Foster Angel’s Giving Tree decorated with paper angels bearing the first names, ages, and gender of foster children and the gifts each child would like to receive.
Collins is a man of modest means, but each week he sets aside a portion of his paycheck to buy gifts to put under the tree. “I just want to show these children there is somebody out there in the community who loves them.” His unpretentious example has inspired the doctors, nurses, and administrators he works with to make the Giving Tree a priority. Hospital employees and visitors take an angel off the tree and buy the present the child has requested.
As Christmas nears, bicycles, dolls, clothes, and video games begin to overflow the cafeteria. In recent years, the program has begun to receive presents from donors throughout the county. More than 1,000 kids in foster care in and around Tampa received gifts in 2009. “My job is to help and give to others,” says Collins. “God doesn’t care if we’re rich or poor.”