WESTMINSTER — Instead of a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, Santa will be at the helm of a 4x4 Chevrolet truck when he arrives in Hamlet, N.C., tonight.
He'll be leaving here early this morning, with $5,000 worth of presents, for 16 girls and boys who face their first Christmas without parents.
The children, who range in age from 5 to 18, were orphaned when afire destroyed a poultry-processing plant where their parents were working Sept. 3.
Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, who is playing Santa in acity Public Works truck, said he should finish the nine-hour drive south "just in the nick of time" to distribute the gifts at a party for the children.
Yesterday, Brown stood amid a pile of brightly wrapped packages, thanking his 1,800 "very special mayoral assistants" -- students at the city's two middle schools.
"We all know that parents are a big part of Santa," he told about 20 of the students gathered at City Hall to load the truck. "I am incredibly proud of you. You sensed how those children would feel and decided what they would need."
Once the mayor and several businesses launched Hands for Hamlet, the children went to work, raising money, shopping and wrapping the gifts.
"It really is better to give than receive," said East Middle student Matt Fogle, 13. "I feel sorry for those kids. They lost their parents, and we might be giving them the only chance they have for a good Christmas. This will show them they aren't forgotten."
For the past two months, the students have put their entrepreneurial skills to work. They raised $1,000 through a fun night at East Middle, with the help of Dennis Kniss, "the world's best science teacher," said Bridgette Dowery, 13, one of his students.
Lately, spare change hasn't gone for ice cream and candy but into a container in the West Middle's cafeteria. More than $200 in nickels, dimes and pennies bought several presents.
Other students said persistence paid off.
"We just bothered everybody on the team (a group of three homerooms) until we raised $270.90," said Chip Moledina, 13, an eighth-graderat West Middle.
"I am very proud of my team. We bought things we would like to have ourselves."
The gifts included Reebok shoes anda windbreaker, a basketball and Gospel tapes, Chip said proudly. Hamlet children also will receive coats, soccer balls, a Nintendo set and a sports bag printed with "West Middle."
"I am only asking for clothes this year but I would like to get these things for Christmas,"said Cortney Woodyard, 13, from West Middle. "These kids need them alot more than I do."
Harry Lambert, West Middle principal, calledthe project a real lesson in community service. The school's 10 teams each adopted a Hamlet child. Teachers contacted Hamlet schools to get sizes and specific wishes. Team 3 students at West Middle are sending Martin Quick, 12, something he always wanted: a 10-speed bike.
Carol Donovan, city activities and recreation supervisor, said the "kids did most of the work." She took a local 13-year-old on her shopping trip to buy gifts for Tracy Chavis, 13, who lost her mother.
Each Hamlet child also will receive a $75 gift certificate for department stores near their homes.
"We know we can't take away the pain of losing parents," Bridgette said.
"We can help them with the presents, and we can pray for them, too."