The morning after the Connecticut school shootings, one of Wichita’s largest and most joyous children’s Christmas events took place under an umbrella of increased security.
The Christian social service group Wichita Dream Center held its annual “Believe in Christmas” bicycle and food giveaway Saturday, brightening the holidays for more than 800 children and their families. But this year’s event came against a backdrop of national tragedy, the shooting rampage on Friday that claimed the lives of 26 people, 20 of them young schoolchildren.
“We already had a really good security plan, but after yesterday we made some changes and brought in some extra deputies,” said the Rev. Marty Freeman, leader of Dream Center and pastor of the affiliated Believer’s Tabernacle church in south Wichita.
“We don’t think anything’s going to happen. We just want everybody to know they’re safe ... to let people feel more at ease.”
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Freeman said the Dream Center event is the antithesis of the shooting.
“It’s easy to look at that (shooting) and say that’s what society is about, but it’s not,” Freeman said.
He said the bike event, which involves hundreds of volunteers, sponsors and donors, shows a more hopeful and helpful side.
“This is about people that give to each other, even strangers,” he said. “That’s what our country’s about. That’s what Wichita’s about.”
Dale Huntington, front man for the Christian band Shine Like Stars, told the crowd that the shootings felt “like a battle lost.” But the good news, he said, is that good will ultimately conquer evil.
“What we want you to know is that the war is over and God is the victor,” he said to loud applause.
As in previous years, families camped out outside the Century II Convention Center to ensure that their children were in line in time to get one of the 800 bikes that were being given away. First through the line was the Moffit family from north Wichita: father Teddy, mother Jessica and their five boys, ages 2, 6, 6, 7 and 10.
Teddy Moffitt works as an auto mechanic and Jessica is a licensed practical nurse, currently unemployed. So she took the lead on the bicycle mission, arriving at Century II about noon Friday. The rest of the family joined her after school, and they took their place at the head of the line.
“We sat there and froze all night,” she said, smiling.
Her husband said the older boys had had bikes, but someone broke in their backyard and stole them. The four new bikes, assorted Star Wars Lego toys and two boxes of food would have cost the family about $500, he said.
Of spending the night on the sidewalk, he said “It was really worth it.”
The children were running on excitement while a lot of parents were running on empty.
Michelle Jacques of Wichita half-dozed in the stands while the hall slowly filled with celebrants. A nurse’s aide, she had worked a 121/2-hour shift Friday, studied for her finals at the online National American University, grabbed about 21/2 hours of sleep and then got up about 4 a.m. to get her sons, Jayquan, 11 and Jaron, 10, to the bicycle line on time.
Like many parents of young children, she said she was horrified by what had happened in Connecticut and was praying for the victims’ families.
“When people are forgetting (God) and trying to take control on their own, that’s what the outcome is,” she said. “It is very scary.”
Her long-term goal is to help fix that by eventually becoming a warden in the corrections system.
“That’s what I go to school for, criminal justice, hoping to make a change,” she said.