MINT HILL – One child’s fascination with trains has become an annual outreach project benefitting dozens of local children in need.
It all started six years ago, when Ashe Plantation residents Don and Sharon Decker saw how much their 3-year-old family friend, Casey Scott, loved trains. Don and Casey began working on building a train track, which has since grown into one of the largest Lionel train sets in the area – and something the Deckers use each year to give back to children in need.
The Mint Hill couple will host their annual Lionel Train Tour on Dec. 7, a Saturday, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at their home, 8200 Quarters Lane. The event begins with a visit from Santa, who’ll ride in on a fire truck, followed by a chance for families to view the train – which spans two rooms. Cost of admission is one Walmart gift card, which will help benefit 35 children in need at Bain Elementary School. Visitors also are encouraged to bring small “stocking stuffers” – toiletries, candy, small books, socks, etc. – for infants, children, teenagers and mothers staying at the Salvation Army Center of Hope Women and Children’s Shelter in Charlotte.
Being a child in need is something Sharon Decker has experienced first hand. She grew up as a foster child in a poor economy, where food was often hard to get and toys were very scarce – until some volunteers from a local fire department pitched in to make Christmas special for Decker and her foster siblings.
“If people hadn’t helped me when I was little, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said.
So she and Don jumped at the idea of paying it forward – through the train. Every year, on a day in early December, the couple invites community members to visit their home and view the train in exchange for donations to help brighten the holiday season for local children in need.
“We have to give back, because the Lord has blessed us so much,” Decker said. “I have a burden for these children.”
The Deckers have collected donations of various items in the past, but the couple is asking specifically for Walmart gift cards this year. Decker said this gives the families a chance to pick out their own presents, make sure clothing items fit and also purchase food and groceries, if needed.
The couple is working with Bain Elementary to distribute the gift cards to 35 children the school has identified as needing extra help during the holidays. The gift cards will be split evenly among the students, and Decker said she hopes to collect enough donations to give each child at least $100 in gift cards.
“The need is just past anything I’ve ever seen before,” she said. “Sometimes these people don’t know if they’re going to be able to pay their light bill, their groceries or their gas bill. They absolutely can’t buy Christmas presents, so that’s what we’re doing.”
One of the things Decker loves about the annual train tour is the involvement of members of the Mint Hill Fire Department, who drive Santa around Ashe Plantation on a fire engine.
“It really makes it neat, and the kids are so excited,” she said.
She also loves showcasing additions to the train each year. The train is now six levels, and Don and Casey, now 9 years old, work on the track each year to expand and tweak it as new pieces are acquired.
“You never stop working on it because you always can add to it,” Decker said. She hopes people who visit the tour will be inspired to help other children in need and call their local schools to see how they can get involved.
“If they all do that, we can get the love of God to those kids for Christmas,” she said.