He tinkers away in his workshop all year, preparing holiday gifts for the girls and boys of the River Valley. His white beard hangs like a mass of cotton balls from his aged chin, and the joy of his hearty chuckle is contagious. You don’t have to be tucked in bed for him to suit up in red and pay your kids a visit—tell him the time and place, and he’s there to give.
The magical work that goes into making the holidays special isn’t just done at the North Pole, or by elves, or at the behest of Saint Nick. Magic happens slowly, one bicycle at a time, in a small shop on a hill in Dover. Men from the Dover Lions Club — who have not a pointy ear one between them — transform used and broken bikes into gifts for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have any. And it’s all because of Wesley Roach, your local Santa.
“Well I’m not Santa Claus, but I’ll play Santa a couple times throughout the year for people who ask me to come see their kids or grandkids,” said Roach. He’s been donating his time to see kids’ eyes light up for three holiday seasons now. “Some of them are all about it, but others are real shy at first. It’s really enjoyable to see the look on those kids’ faces and know you’re making them happy.”
For as long as he’s played the part of Santa, he’s also been at the helm of the Lions Club’s bicycle project. He brainstormed the idea with a goal of serving the community, and he said the project has since spread rapidly by word of mouth. Locals are more than willing to help out, whether it means collecting old and worn bikes, donating money for parts or in some instances purchasing new bikes that require no work at all. Whatever it takes, he said, they’ll do it.
Schools, churches, citizens and police departments all play a part in giving club members a heads up about people in the community who may be candidates for the bike program. Once the parents are notified, they can either drop by and pick out a bike that fits their kids’ needs or, Roach said, he and other members don’t mind delivering the bikes to families without transportation.
“There are kids out there that wouldn’t have much of a Christmas without these bikes, and parents always tell me they’re so appreciative of what we do,” he said. “You can see it in their eyes and the way they talk to you that it means a lot because it gives them an opportunity to give something to their kids for Christmas that they wouldn’t be able to give otherwise. They’ll just thank you over and over and over.”
Roach said giving out bikes to parents who may be down on their luck or out of work is a powerfully humbling experience. Witnessing parents who don’t have the funds to purchase toys like other families is heart wrenching, but knowing he’s doing what he can to help is a mutually uplifting sentiment.
He said a Lions Club member recently came to the shop in Roach’s yard where the men work and picked up a couple bikes for a woman’s grandchildren. As soon as she saw him come to the door with the bikes, she broke down crying and hugged his neck, telling him they hadn’t known what they were going to do for Christmas. These bikes were their only option. The guileless gift saved Christmas. It saved a family.
Roach’s need to help kids toward happiness stems in large part from his 37-year career as the supervisor of the maintenance department at Russellville Public Schools, a job from which he’s now retired. He said he got attached watching kids start off in grade school, grow into young men and women, graduate and eventually see their kids coming back through the school system.
“I think that job kind of helped form my thought process toward kids,” he said. “I’ve seen some situations that’ll just tear your heart out. Your hands are tied, and you can’t do anything, but you wish you could so bad. Fixing up these bikes is just one small way to help all those kids who are in need and without someone who can help them. I’ve got a little bit of time to give back now in retirement. The community took care of me for a lot of years, and now I can give back to them.”
Despite his career in maintenance, Roach makes it clear he’s no mechanical genius. Each year the program gives away about 30 bikes, and every bike is refashioned into a functional state by 12-15 men using the trial and error method. They’ll get together for a work day early in the morning and delve into washing and replacing parts, removing wheels and wires from bikes with broken frames to fit another, painting chipped metal and recycling the would-be scrap junk into a Christmas present as important as any Red Ryder BB Gun. If one member doesn’t know how to fix broken spokes, another will. And if someone has no clue how to straighten out a bent frame, somebody with a hammer will be more than willing to give it a shot. Paint can cover up a lot.
Roach said it doesn’t feel like work at all, getting his hands dirty to help kids receive what could be their first bike. Even the expenses incurred buying parts here and there don’t seem to matter much to Roach and the other members who spend anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours working on each bike. For the most part, Roach said he’s able to make out a list of needed parts beforehand to get the work done quicker.
But as the holidays draw near, the more bikes people donate.
“People will either drop bikes off to a club member or bring them by my shop because everybody knows where I live,” he said. “Some days I’ll come in, and there’s two or three bikes sitting there, so I know there’s work to get after. People have been outstanding at donating bikes, or money or whatever we need. Really any way we can get those bikes to the kids for them to have a good Christmas is what we’re all working for.”
Roach, more than most men his age, knows and cares about how indispensable bikes are. Growing up, he said he didn’t have much, but his parents were always able to buy him something for Christmas. When many of the kids around him wouldn’t get anything other than an orange or apple, he’d usually have some kind of toy waiting for him underneath the tree.
When he was about 10-years-old, he received his first bike, one which he would share with his sister. The joint ownership didn’t bother either of them, though, as they rode up and down the hill he still lives on today, past the chicken houses his family used to work. That bike, he said, was his transportation, his pride and joy.
Now a father and grandfather himself, the devastation some parents experience knowing they can’t provide a gift for their kids hits him even harder. It also drives him to offer his time and effort to those struggling through the holidays. Serving the community and his fellow man is necessary to his own happiness. It’s more than just his beard that epitomizes the Christmas spirit.
“It’s not about receiving, but it’s about giving—whether that means giving a toy to a kid or just a simple ‘good morning’ given in the right way,” he said. “It’s how you greet and respect other people, and I think the bikes emphasize that spirit of selfless giving.”
He’s content with the bike program, but said if people continue to spread the word he hopes they can give out a hundred bikes each year. They’re always in need of bikes as the community’s awareness of the program continues to grow in proportion to the Lions Club’s altruism.
More important to him than giving things, Roach said that nothing can replace the time parents spend with their families. A grandfather to three teens who’ll graduate high school in a few years, he talks about time nostalgically and urges everyone to envelope their loved ones with their presence every chance they get.
“If we can bring a little joy to their life, that’s all the Christmas I need—I’m too old for presents, but they’re not,” Roach said. “You need to be a kid when you can because that time is very short. I don’t know if parents realize it, but you blink your eyes and your kids will grow up on you. If they’re involved in something, you need to be involved with them because everything you miss you can’t get back. It’s just gone. You need to enjoy those times.”