In an interview, Jones explained how the seed of the idea was planted while he was still on the Panama City, Florida police force. He saw so many kids who would not get presents, that it broke through that rough exterior. But the idea blossomed when he was working part time as security for a department store and saw the managers throwing away toys that had been returned or broken.
“I asked if I couldn’t take those toys and fix them up for families that couldn’t buy for their kids,” he said.
“Salvage Santa,” they call him in countless newspaper stories and TV reports. His work even got him a day of recognition on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1995. He has touched literally thousands of lives by stepping in where he saw a need.
Helping Others is Contagious
Jones took some old bikes and repaired them in a backyard workshop. His wife made clothes for some old dolls. That first year was a small effort.
The next year, things began to grow. Family and friends pitched in. They helped disassemble old bikes, repaint them, and add new parts. They cleaned old dolls and made new doll clothes.
As word spread, churches and community groups volunteered. Soon, organizations and individuals were donating cash or buying new in-the-box toys for the program.
Jones joined forces with Early Education and Care, a nonprofit childcare resource center, which oversees the donations and supplies the bikes and other toys to the needy families they serve.
These days, Jones usually finishes refurbishing about 125 bikes a given year, with the help of donations and friendly worker elves. On the 25th anniversary of the effort, he and his helpers supplied 250 rebuilt bikes. In addition, literally thousands of new toys were purchased or donated and then given to grateful parents to put under the Christmas tree.
A Hard Year for Everyone is Hardest on Santa
Used bikes are often dropped off in the “corral” at Jones’ home outside Panama City. He lines them up in the back yard until he can get them into the workshop.
“This year, the need out there is so much greater,” he said. “I’ll be doing bikes right up to Christmas Day.”
In November 2009, Jones lamented an empty toy shop; he had plenty of bikes for his upcoming giveaway, but no donated toys whatsoever. What should have been, in his estimation, a pile of “thousands of new toys” by this time of the year, was nowhere to be seen.
“It’s a bad year for everyone,” he said.
But Jones isn’t one to give up. He has seen lean years before, and the community has always come through, he said. “Bay County is the givingest community I’ve ever seen in my life. It amazes me every year,” he said. “I am ‘Salvage Santa,’ but the Salvage Santa program is Bay County. Without their gifts and donations, there wouldn’t be a Christmas for 800 or 900 kids every year.”
With Jones around, Bay County, Florida’s children will never have a year without a Santa Claus.