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“Whoa. Oh my gosh,” Joseph Hammonds exclaimed Monday as he first stepped inside an old-fashioned red caboose near the Selma Union Station. “This is so cool.”
The 6-year-old’s excitement was matched by his peers, full of anticipation — and a little sugar — during a “Polar Express” day organized by the Wilson Police Athletic League and the Wilson Housing Authority. The day started with breakfast with volunteers, a bus ride to Selma, a visit from Santa and activities followed by a train ride back to Wilson, lunch, storytime, coloring and a showing of the 2004 adaptation of “The Polar Express.”
“Less than two weeks ago, this was just an idea, but God stepped in and blessed our Police Athletic League to bring everything together. We’ll call it a Christmas blessing,” said Senior Police Officer Daniel Johnson, who is the coordinator for the PAL program. “To see this event put so much joy on their faces is amazing.”
Police Chief Thomas Hopkins said his staff have worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to share the Christmas train at Recreation Park with area kids, but staff wanted to upgrade the experience this year. Staff worked out the details with N.C. Department of Transportation and Amtrak to secure 30 spots on the Carolinian from Selma to Wilson.
“I think the officers and volunteers are just as excited as the kids are,” Hopkins said. “We wanted to give the kids a memorable experience, and I think today will certainly accomplish that.”
The Wilson Housing Authority helped find the 19 children, ages 5 to 8, based on academics and attitude. For J’Lyen and J’Leigha Wallace, 8-year-old twins, the trip was more than just a chance to miss a day of school.
“My mom told me yesterday that we won’t going to school because we were going on the train,” he said. “I’ve never been on a train.”
Starting the adventure, he hadn’t seen or read “The Polar Express,” but by the end of the day, he got to experience both.
Juliana Jones, 7, and NaKia Frails, 8, both said their favorite part of the book is the train ride, but going on a train was a first for the second-graders at Jones Elementary School. Luckily the duo along with the rest of the kids stayed occupied and smiling when the train was delayed by nearly an hour, playing Simon Says led by Juliana’s mother, Police Officer 1 Charmaine Harris.
Harris said the community engagement, especially with youth, was the catalyst behind stepping down as the executive director of the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club to enroll in basic law enforcement training.
“With the community events and the PAL program, the Wilson Police Department made me feel like I could reach more and change more lives instead of just being in an office,” she said.
She said it was during her time at the Boys and Girls Club that Jones first saw the iconic motion picture about a train ride to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus.
“The whole movie is exciting from start to finish,” Harris said. “It gets me in the Christmas spirit for sure.”
Amtrak Conductor L. Teacher spent the 30-minute train ride from Selma to Wilson chatting with the kids, answering their questions and hoping to inspire the next generation of train enthusiasts as well as stir their holiday spirit.
“Amtrak is a great company, and I’m happy to be a part of this,” she said. “It is so much fun to help make this come true for these kids, and I hope it is not the last time we do this.”
With an “all aboard” and a wave to the kids, the train continued its route and the group continued the rest of their holiday fun.
“My heart is just so full,” Johnson said after the train ride.
City Manager Grant Goings said the day-long event is just one example of efforts Wilson is making to invest not only in the present, but in the future.
“We’ve made investments in infrastructure, but this is a chance to invest in the human capital of our city and expose these kids to opportunities they might not get otherwise,” he said. “I think through the PAL program, the Wilson Police Department is changing the dynamic between the police and the community through connections being made with youth that will pay dividends down the road.”