As a union carpenter, Craig Jones once built houses. Now, with the construction industry in the tank, he builds hamburgers at Spangles.
So on Saturday, he was as delighted as his 5-year-old daughter with the Barbie bicycle they picked up at Believe in Christmas, an event sponsored by Dream Center Wichita that distributed 575 bikes and thousands of other gifts to brighten the holiday for underprivileged children and their families.
“It feels good,” Jones said, watching as his daughter, Olivia Edins-Jones, sat proudly on the shining pink bike, that came complete with a Barbie doll lashed to the frame.
“I love Barbie,” Olivia said, beaming. “I have a Barbie purse.”
“She had a Disney princess bike that got stolen out of my mom’s yard,” her father said. “I’d just started back to work so I wasn’t able to get her another one.”
While Jones doesn’t have much money, he did have time. And he spent that by arriving 12 hours early and overnighting on the sidewalk at the Century II Convention Center, to ensure his daughter would get the coveted green armband that meant a new bike.
About 2,000 people packed the center’s Concert Hall for the event, which was part gift distribution and part church service.
Dream Center is a project of Believers Tabernacle, a south Wichita Church that ministers to the poor year-round.
Huffy gave the group a factory discount on the bikes, and church members, volunteers and donors handed out more than1,200 other toys and 800 boxes of food. Rubbermaid Corp. donated more than 2,000 picnic jugs and coolers.
If you want to know what it’s like to give that many Christmas gifts to kids who don’t have a lot, just ask Santa Claus.
“It really tears you up (makes you want to cry) and makes you think about what you have and what you don’t have,” said Santa, who sometimes uses the name Robert Cornett. “It really makes you appreciate what you have.”
The Rev. Marty Freeman, the pastor at BelieversTabernacle who started the event last year, said he was tired but filled with joy.
“Every child deserves a great Christmas memory,” he said.
In his turn on the stage, Freeman reminded the crowd to thank Jesus for making the event possible.
“We are having a birthday party on the 25th for the king of kings and the lord of lords,” he said. “We know that God loves Wichita and that God loves every one of you.”
The group held last year’s event at the church, but found out that was too small a venue and moved it to Century II for this year, said Delnita Hazell, Freeman’s administrative assistant.
Last year, they seated 600 of the 1,300 who attended, she said.
This year, they just about overflowed the 2,000 seats set up in the Concert Hall for the event.
In addition to the gift giveaway, the event featured worship band Of the Rescue and Christian rappers IIYE – Invest In Your Eternity.
But the hall really rocked when the volunteers started walking the kids, in the order they arrived, through a rope line to pick up their bikes and other presents.
And although the Joneses had been there overnight, they weren’t even at the head of the line.
Those honors went to Lizeth Gandara, 8, and her cousin, Angallee Lopez, 9.
“We’ve been here since yesterday,” Lizeth said. “It was really fun.”
Lizeth’s mom, Chris Hernandez, said they made it a family campout with her, Lizeth and 5-year-old son Aiden Clark; and Hernandez’s sister Amanda Lopez and her two children, daughter Angallee and son Saul, 5.
All four of the children got bikes, and in the case of Lizeth and Aiden, they replaced bikes that they had been stolen early last summer, Hernandez said.
Hernandez said the giveway couldn’t have come at a better time for the family.
A single mother, she had been working two jobs as a school cafeteria aide and as a life coach for a youth residential program. But she was recently laid off from both jobs as a result of government funding cuts.
“The kids weren’t going to have so much under the tree, so we decided to sleep out for it,” she said. “It was well worth it, all night freezing.”