ST. PETERS — On Christmas Eve morning, Mia Bell and her 8-year-old daughter Chloe heard the ring of a doorbell at their St. Peters duplex.
There on the stoop stood two women in masks, buzzing with excitement.
“We have a visitor coming right around the corner, but we might need some help when he gets here,” one of the women, Tina Bilyeu, told the mother and daughter. Chloe’s two teenage brothers came to watch, too.
Moments later, the family heard the roar of more than 20 motorcycles rounding the corner on to their quiet, suburban street. At the rear of the group was Santa Claus, riding his own motorcycle with Mrs. Claus on the back.
Chloe gave a wave to the man in red. The 8-year-old wore a tie-dye scarf to cover her head, a little pink mask and Christmas pajama pants. The snout of a small, stuffed puppy popped out from under the collar of her pink coat.
Santa parked his bike, and a trailer full of gifts for Chloe and the rest of her family came to a stop in front of the home. Chloe’s Mom, Mia, wiped away tears.
The event marked the St. Louis area’s third annual Reindeer Ride, an event organized by the George Bean Project, a charity started by Florissant couple Tina and Greg Bilyeu and supported by their circle of friends, including their church motorcycle ministry, the Faithful Few.
For three years now, the group has given Christmas presents and about a year’s worth of household necessities and gift cards to families with children undergoing cancer treatment. The recipient of each ride then nominates the next year’s family. The organizers tell the families to be home, but the extent of the gift remains a surprise.
“I was shocked,” Mia Bell said. “I knew it was going to be something, but I never thought it would be like this. I’m overwhelmed.”
Bell said the gifts couldn’t have come at a better time. Her daughter was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma cancer in 2017. After some progress, she relapsed in June.
“We had remote school and COVID on top of this, so it’s a lot of stress,” said Chloe’s mother, who works full time in quality control for a home warranty company.
The past few weeks have been especially hard for the family, as Chloe is undergoing radiation treatment and had to be hospitalized for seven days earlier this month because of a complication.
Though she’s home now, Chloe can’t leave the house because she is at a high risk for complications from COVID-19 or other illnesses.
“This is going to make a huge difference,” Mia Bell said of the presents. “I’m a single mom with three kids, and it’s been hard.”
Mrs. Claus on Thursday closely resembled Dana Manley, of Jonesburg, Missouri, whose family was the first recipient of the Reindeer Ride’s generosity in 2018.
That year, Manley’s 8-year-old daughter, Sydney, died from a form of kidney cancer known as Wilms tumor. She and Sydney started a toy drive that year to give to other kids, but her friends at the George Bean Foundation wanted to make sure that their family was taken care of too.
“It meant so, so much to me,” Manley said. “You’re not only emotionally spent when your child is sick, you’re also financially broken. That day I got a year’s worth of groceries. I didn’t really need to go out to the store for anything for a year after that.”
Manley’s daughter died in February 2018. Since then, Manley has given out gifts through a foundation in Sydney's name and has continued to attend the annual Reindeer Ride.
“I wish I could hug you, but, you know, COVID rules say I can’t,” Manley told Chloe’s mother, Mia, as the gifts were unloaded into Mia’s home.
After about 20 minutes of gift delivery, Santa gave Chloe one gift that she was allowed to open right away.
It was the No. 1 thing on her Christmas list: a Baby Alive doll.
“Oh I’m so relieved Santa got that,” her mother said, laughing. “Because mom did not.”
An 8-year-old girl will now be able to ride her bike for miles, regardless of physical challenges.
Erin Heffernan • 314-340-8145 @erinheff on Twitter email@example.com