With just three days left in it’s now-annual bike collection drive for Toys for Tots, the owners of downtown bar Jimmy’s Wrightsville Beach were starting to come to terms with the idea that they wouldn’t be able to overtake their 2018 collection numbers. Having collected bikes for the better part of three weeks, the bar had taken in 215 bikes, well short of the 415 bikes donated the prior year.
“I didn’t believe we would get there,” said co-owner Jimmy Gilleece. “There was a point in the drive when if we could have gotten just 300 bikes, I would have taken it.”
But then they came. Sometimes it was a business or group that would bring in 10 or more. Other times, college students would pool together their limited resources to bring in just one. But regardless of how they got here, the bikes arrived.
By the collection cut-off on Sunday, Dec. 15, the bar had raised 792 bikes, as dozens of volunteers helped to assemble, load and move the bikes. As Wrightsville Beach police helped block the streets, volunteers lined the bikes along the sidewalk, stretching the length of two blocks. After the box truck was filled, volunteers loaded bikes into their pickup trucks to take them to the collection point.
“We really needed help to beat last year’s record, and the community came together and delivered,” said co-owner Keaton Cline Gilleece. “It was insane. At one point, there was a line out the door of people wanting to donate bikes and have their picture taken.”
Before the weekend outpouring, the organizing force behind the drive, local band L Shaped Lot and its lead singer Eric Miller, had already assured Gilleece that any and all donations are appreciated.
“At one point, when they had only raised 60 or so bikes, I told Jimmy that it was a great thing,” Miller said. “I told him it’s not about doing better than the year before. It’s about doing good, and whether you bring in one bike or one thousand bikes, the fact is, you’re doing something good for your community.”
But the owners of Jimmy’s Wrightsville Beach, located at 5A N. Lumina Ave., said they were determined to make the goal, blasting out posts to their Instagram and Facebook channels, which have combined more than 15,000 followers.
The first bike was donated in early November by one of the drive’s biggest supporters, 10-year-old Caroline Merrified. The Ogden Elementary School student raised enough money to bring in 15 bikes after collecting donations from friends at school, her parents work colleagues and even finding money in the dryer. She has donated bikes in each of the drive’s three years.
“I want them to have a good Christmas as much as I will and I like helping other people,” she said. “I’m glad so many kids will have the chance to ride bikes.”
After being at 215 on Wednesday evening, the bar collected at least 100 bikes on Thursday, putting them within eye shot of the goal. By happy hour on Friday, Jimmy’s Wrightsville Beach had already beat its mark of 416 bikes, with still a day-and-a-half left in the drive. The 415 collected in 2018 was more than double the 201 bikes collected in the drive’s first year.
The outpouring of donations was so unexpected that the organizers scrambled to find ways to transport and store the bikes. After taking about half of the bikes to a New Hanover County collection point, organizers called collection organizations in Brunswick, Pender and Columbus counties.
“Fortunately, I had an army of volunteers ready to help,” Gilleece said. “They’re what made this happen.”
The bike donations were part of the Toys for Tots drive organized by L Shaped Lot, an annual fundraiser now in its eighth year. In addition to hundreds of bikes raised, this year’s drive brought in more than 800 toys, the sixth consecutive year the drive has reached those levels.
Run nationally by the United States Marine Corps Reserve, the New Hanover County branch of Toys for Tots is administered by Marine Corps League Detachment 1070. While Toys for Tots collects the bikes, they are distributed by the Salvation Army, since that organization has the means to screen applicants to make sure the bikes go to those who need them, organizers said.
Gilleece said it was remarkable how many individuals and businesses stepped up to help in this year’s drive. To help transport the bikes, the local Two Men and a Truck franchise donated a truck and labor, consultant Jon Toney said, adding that employees Terrell Thames and Nas Brown were on the scene to help for the third consecutive year. He estimated the value of the donation at $750 – $1,000.
On the day of collection, there were still about 150 bikes that needed to be assembled, which is where local relief organization Port City Proud came in, bringing in volunteers to build the bikes Sunday morning. The volunteers assembled at the bar on Sunday morning were fed through a donation from Sawmill Grill. The Triangle Lounge provided key support, bringing in 30 bikes and rallying volunteers, Gilleece said.
Jimmy Gilleece said the outpouring of donations demonstrated the generosity of the community, in all its forms. An important aspect of the drive is that no donation is judged, he said.
“We had donations of 10 bikes from businesses and people who are rich and we had college kids pool money together to buy just one bike,” he said. “It’s all the same to us, we appreciated each donation, no matter how big or small. It’s a very generous community.”
While they said they were surprised and a bit overwhelmed by the outpouring, Gilleece said there are no plans to slow down next year, and will again hold the bike drive in 2020, this time with the goal of breaking this year’s total of 792.
“We plan to break the board,” Gilleece said of the 3-digit digital counter displayed in front of the establishment, providing an instant update of the collection totals. “We’ve already talking about getting a new board that can display four digits.”