Stealing Christmas

When Santa Pal headquarters opened on Dec. 2, volunteer Maria Hinckle was bowled over by the increased number of people seeking donated toys for their children.

Santa Pal, a project of the Asheville Optimist Club, aims to provide new Christmas toys to children whose families can’t afford them, notes Hinckle, the program’s chairwoman.

Given those added requests — probably a result of tighter economic times — Hinckle was furious to learn last Wednesday that someone had broken into the Coxe Avenue headquarters and stolen about one-fourth of the donated toys, valued at between $8,000 and $10,000.

“I was sick to my stomach,” she confessed. “To me, it’s like taking food out of a starving man’s mouth. These are little kids — they didn’t hurt anybody. I can’t imagine.”

Natalie Platt, who has volunteered with Santa Pal for 16 years, was similarly upset.

“This is sad,” she observed, taking a break from fielding applications for toys. “At this time of year, we all feel for the kids.”

Immediately after the theft, Hinckle feared that without additional donations, children from families with slender means would have to be content with only one toy, rather than the three or four Santa Pal usually provides.

But last Friday, two sister manufacturing plants in Buncombe County leaped to the rescue. BorgWarner Turbo Systems in Arden and BorgWarner Cooling Systems in Fletcher each agreed to donate $5,000 to the effort, said Karen Samborski, human resources manager at the Arden plant. In addition, employees collected more than 100 toys to donate to the cause, she said. The check and toys were scheduled to be delivered on Tuesday.

“That’s fantastic,” declared Optimist Club member Dusty Pless. “I am more than grateful for BorgWarner.”

While gifts of that size are unprecedented in the Santa Pal project, Pless said he’d been optimistic that somehow the community would come through — as it’s done since the effort began in 1936.

“I have a lot of trust and faith in this community,” Pless declared.

Last year, Santa Pal provided 1,400 children with new Christmas toys. Hinckle estimated early last week that 2,000 children would apply to the program this year.

An arrest has been made in the case. Someone called Santa Pal to report that a man was bragging about the break-in, and volunteers notified law enforcement, Platt said.

Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department Detective Michael Murphy last week charged Vincent Bradford Earl, 37, of Asheville with breaking and entering (a felony) and larceny of the toys at the Santa Pal headquarters, according to court records and the Asheville Citizen-Times. (At press time, Xpress was unable to obtain arrest information from the Sheriff’s Department.)

Xpress readers may remember that Earl filed a federal civil-rights complaint last year, asserting that his right to practice his own religion, Islam, had been violated at the Buncombe County Detention Facility (see “Freedom on the Inside,” Dec. 5, 2001 Xpress,. Earl was seeking $5 million in damages, but a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the complaint a year ago.

Want to help? Volunteers are accepting donations 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through Dec. 17 at Santa Pal headquarters (162 Coxe Ave. in Asheville). Four other sites will also accept donations: Anderson Family Homes, 20 Sardis Road; Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co., 675 Merrimon Ave.; Asheville Racquet Club, 200 Racquet Club Road (off Hendersonville Road); and Vision Sports Fitness Center, 9 Kenilworth Knoll (just off Tunnel Road). For more info, call Santa Pal headquarters at 258-3230. Donations can be sent to: Santa Pal, P.O. Box 1912, Asheville, NC 28802.

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