LAPLACE — His eyes filled with wonder and excitement, Matt Walker of LaPlace gazed up at the racks filled with shiny new bicycles in the LaPlace Walmart on Tuesday.
His bike was old and rusted, he said. And it got even more rusted when his family’s home, along with thousands of others in St. John the Baptist Parish, was flooded two months ago by Hurricane Isaac. So he was more than ready to pick out a new one. And Saints running back Pierre Thomas was more than ready to help him.
Together, the youngster and Thomas picked out a shiny new red and black bike, along with a matching helmet, and a handful of other items Walker had lost in the storm. For Walker, who now lives with his grandmother while his house undergoes repairs, it was Christmas in October. For Thomas, it was a way of giving back to the community.
Thomas and a few of his teammates took more than a dozen LaPlace youngsters on a shopping spree Tuesday afternoon to help them replace some of what they had lost in the storm. The event was organized through Thomas’ iCAN Foundation, which motivates youngsters to be active in an effort to combat childhood obesity, but for Thomas, it was more than that.
“I came here after Katrina,” Thomas said. “So I did whatever I could to help people that lost something in Katrina. To have it happen again, but out here. This is a time for us to give back and actually do something about it. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about stopping a hurricane from happening. But I can do something about giving back and let these kids go out here and have fun. That’s something that’s going to touch my heart.”
Surrounded by unsuspecting shoppers snapping cell phone photos, Thomas, along with Saints punter Thomas Morstead, fullback Jed Collins and center Brian de la Puente, roamed the sporting good aisles with 16 students from LaPlace Elementary School, and two New Orleans youngsters sponsored by the Son of a Saint Foundation, which mentors fatherless youths. Split into groups, the players helped the youngsters select sporting equipment — no video games or toys — with a shopping limit of $220 each. The amount was originally $110, but was doubled by fellow Saints player Marques Colston, who did not attend.
As Saints mascot Gumbo rode a borrowed bike up and down the aisles and entertained spectators, Morstead helped one young man fill a shopping buggy with a baseball bat, a bucket of baseballs and a new glove. Other children left with basketballs, footballs, soccer balls and Razor scooters.
Jaddan Diaz, 13, left with a new set of boxing gloves and a punching bag. His mother, Autumn Diaz, said her family is living in a hotel in Baton Rouge. She said she makes the daily commute to LaPlace to drop her children off at school then drives to New Orleans to attend classes at Delgado Community College.
“This is a blessing,” Autumn Diaz said. “It was really good for him.”
Besides Walker, several children wheeled brand-new bikes to the register, including India Turner, 11, who became the proud owner of a pink and purple one.
“We got a foot and a half of water,” said Angela Turner, India’s mother, who said they are commuting from a Kenner apartment to LaPlace every day. “This is wonderful. I’m just glad for the attention and that Saints player decided to do this. Because it’s really nice. It gives the kids a treat and a break from everything that’s going on. She did lose her bike in the storm. That’s what she wants.”
“This is very exciting,” said St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom. “One, because people are still remembering us. Although we’ve done an excellent job of getting everything together, what we need people to understand and know is, this is long-term. And we have kids who have been impacted, not just through the schools, but through their health life, their family lives. And for the members of the Saints team, especially Pierre Thomas, to come out and do this for our kids, it means a whole lot to us.”
It also meant a lot to Walker.
“I think this is the coolest thing I’ve ever got to do in my life,” he said.
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