With her 6-month-old daughter cradled in her arms and her five boys playing nearby, Ladonna Smith smiled about Santa’s gift-giving as she stood in a parking lot at the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church. Her boys zoomed around on their new bikes while she carried a preschool block set for her daughter. All of the gifts were courtesy of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association.
“They’re gonna really enjoy themselves with this stuff,” Smith said.
Don Rieder, a steamship pilot for 30 years, helped raise money from other pilots for 157 disadvantaged children in Plaquemine. When he told them money would go to children, the answer was always “yes, yes, yes,” he said.
Rieder and other members of the association, also known as NOBRA, gathered at the church in Plaquemine Saturday morning, surrounded by the fruits of their labor – and money.
Forty-seven bicycles leaned on kickstands outside the church. A roomful of presents for the youngest children lay in wait. And, in the cafeteria, 26 pizzas and more than 150 tacos were ready to be passed out to children and their parents.
“It’s the time of the year when you’re supposed to do this,” NOBRA President Bud Watson III said. “It’s a time of giving.”
The pilots, who steer freighters, bulk cargo vessels and tankers up and down the shifting Mississippi River and who have been criticized in the past for being insular, raised more than $10,000 for the third annual Christmas event, Watson said.
In total, 112 NOBRA pilots raise anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 each year for charitable causes as part of an outreach program, Rieder said.
They saw a tangible outcome of their gifts on Saturday.
Children rode their newly acquired bicycles in the church parking lot while their parents stood and watched.
Alan Hollins, 11, leaned against his new green bicycle and mentioned that it is painted his favorite color.
His father, Edward Hollins, said his son would ride the bike home to their house a few blocks away. The bicycle was a welcome gift.
“This doesn’t happen every year,” Hollins said.
Hollins, who works in construction, said his son wants to be a policeman or firefighter when he grows up but Hollins acknowledged a career as a river pilot might not be bad, either.
The pilots, who may earn close to $300,000 a year for bringing deep-draft vessels inland, are members of one of four state river pilot associations.
Kelvin Boston, who is the first African-American river pilot licensed in Louisiana, told the mostly black families crammed into the 28 pews in the church that if they worked hard, they could accomplish almost anything.
“It’s a good thing to do something for these kids,” Boston said. “They deserve it.”
The pilots raised the money for the event and organizers from the church identified the children from low-income families who would receive the gifts, the Rev. Lee Wesley said.
Newborns to 17-year-olds, all from Plaquemine, received presents.
Some families requested assistance in paying for school uniforms and supplies and received that as well.
NOBRA contributed to the event in Plaquemine this year but may shift its donations elsewhere next year, Watson said. The group tries to rotate charitable gift-giving among the parishes along the lower Mississippi River.
In the spring, the focus for NOBRA shifts to an annual baseball event for terminally ill youth, Rieder said. He expects the effort to go well.
“It’s one of the easiest things to do,” Rieder said, “raise money for kids.”