HAMLET, N.C. — And a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11)
HAMLET, N.C. -- They were quiet and serious as they walked into the Hamlet Senior Center, not knowing what to expect.
When they left 90 minutes later, there were smiles on their faces and laughter in their voices -- thanks to the efforts of the 1,800 students at Westminster's East and West middle schools.
The children, ranging in age from 5 to 18, each lost a parent in the Sept. 3 Imperial Food Products plant fire that left 25 dead and 56 injured in this small community of 6,700 between Charlotte and Fayetteville. Some 3 1/2 months later, they remain in shock, as are other relatives of the victims.
"Things have not been too good," said 15-year-old James Broady, a ninth-grader who lost his mother. "We think about what we used to do: We had fun and we used to live.
"Thanksgiving was hard. It's really going to be difficult at Christmas.
But at least for a little while Wednesday evening, 15 of the 17 children (one was unable to come and another has moved away) were able to put aside their grief and enjoy the spirit of the season at a party.
Hamlet Mayor Abbie Covington and the City Council put on the party so WestminsterMayor W. Benjamin Brown could play Santa Claus with the $5,500 in gifts he brought here from Carroll County.
"These are from 1,800 students at East and West middle schools," Brown told the children, pointing to the truckload of gifts he had driven down from Westminster. "Our kids didn't know you, only that you -- like them -- are children.
"They also know about pain and suffering and can understand what you are going through. They realize this world is a good place; they care about one another and love one another.
"This is from 1,800 Points of Light in Westminster," the mayor added, referring to President Bush's volunteerism program. "I'm just the delivery man."
After presenting a Westminster commemorative plate to Covington, Brown himself received a key to the city, an official city pin, a city mug,a CSX train whistle (Hamlet was a major passenger train stop in years past), and a proclamation thanking Brown, Westminster and its citizens for their "support in this time of need."
Then came the fun part, especially for me. I joined Brown and Hamlet officials in handing out the mountain of gifts. (The children also received a $75 K mart gift certificate.)
Smiles began to appear on the youngsters' facesas they ripped open box after box. There was the practical, clothing, and the fun, toys ranging from boom boxes to music tapes to sports equipment to Nintendo games.
The biggest was a 10-speed bicycle for 12-year-old Martin Quick, who lost his mother. He was ecstatic.
All of the children, who also were treated to refreshments and some good old-fashioned Christmas carols, were happy.
"I got a lot of good things -- and more," said Michael Gagnon, 16, who -- along with brother Scott, 13 -- lost his father.
The 11th-grader even was happy with a tape from an artist he didn't know: "But I'm sure I'll like it," he said sincerely.
Michael's mother, Pearlie, was smiling with her sons.
"This is the happiest I've seen them in a long time," she said.
All of the children asked me to thank those who were responsible for the gifts, especially the middle school students.
"We appreciate what the kids did (for us)," said James. "We hope to come visit them sometime and we want them to have a safe and happy holiday."
Hamlet Councilman Robert Maloney told Brown, "It would be an understatement to say 'fantastic, fabulous.' How do you tell (Carroll) people who expressed love without any contact with us what all this means? It would be like saying 'sorry' to someone who lost a loved one; it's hard to express yourself.
"Westminster taught us a lot about love for your fellow man."
So if it's true that our children areour future, the students of East and West middles have set a great example.
As Brown put it: "If you want children to be good, let them do good -- and stand back."