LUMBERTON — Raising money for children sometimes requires acting like one.
Just ask the Sudan Tomcats — the parade unit for the Robeson County Shrine Club. The 45-member unit speeds through parades in mini go-carts, creating a buzz around the organization and, in turn, helping sick children.
“We put a show on for the kids mainly so they can have fun, and the parents to raise awareness for what we do,” said Charlie Andrews, a member of the Tomcats. “ … Our slogan is helping kids and having fun.”
The club participated in nearly 30 parades this year — a record for the group. Thirteen of the parades were during the Christmas season.
The packed schedule is double that of normal years.
Sudan Tomcats could be seen making circles during Christmas parades in Marietta, Lumberton, Rowland, Lake View, S.C., St. Pauls, Wallace, Red Springs, Pembroke, Whiteville, Tabor City, Bladenboro, Fairmont, and Elizabethtown.
“We basically go anywhere,” said Thomas Smith, the captain. “We never charge for our participation in parades we do; however, we accept donations that further our mission to help crippled and burned children.”
Getting in the driver’s seat is an honor not easily attained.
“We’re all Masons, but we’re Masons then we’re Shriners then we join the parade gimmick,” Smith said. “It’s kind of a stepping operation. … You have to work to get there. It’s an acceptance thing.”
While there are 45 members, 23 are associate members who do not drive in parades. About 10 cars attend each festivity.
The cars zip up to nearly 40 mph, and the formations — circles, circles within circles, figure eights and more — require precision with the crowds and other parade units nearby.
“Our unit is basically listed as a fast-paced precision-driving team,” Smith said. ” … This past year we’ve done a lot of safety modifications to our cars. Our cars have gotten faster, crowds have gotten closer, so we try to make sure everyone is safe.”
The cars, which are replicas of the 1996 Plymouth Prowler, cost about $4,000 each. They are painted purple, the color of the original car. Decals with the Tomcats name and logo are placed over the paint job.
“They were not designed for grown adults they were designed for kids to play with but we’ve got the engine shopped up a little bit and updated the brakes and wheels to accomodate safety in a parade,” Smith said.
There are no seat belts in the cars, and Smith said it is only difficult for the “fat men” to get in and out of them.
While cruising in their purple rides, members wear signature fezzes — the funny hat with a tassel on top.
“The fez is synonymous with Shriners,” Smith said.
The name fez comes from the city where it was first manufactured — Fez, Morocco.
Each rider owns and maintains his own car. The group also owns a mini-tractor trailer that pulls a sign bearing the name of the club.
“It’s a fun experience to start with but it also is a very demanding one,” Andrews said.
“We spend our own money, our own resources and we’ve traveled all the way to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to advertise for Shrinedom,” Smith said.
Each parade takes about a half a tank of gas in the mini-Prowlers.
While it looks like fun and games during the parade, the mission is serious. The Shriners own and operate 22 hospitals in North America that offer free health care services to children in need. Kids up to 18 years old with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries, and cleft lips and palates are eligible for admission.
To donate, checks should be made out to the Robeson County Shrine Club Tomcats and mailed to Thomas Smith, 3575 Rosewood Drive, Lumberton, N.C., 28358. For information, visit www.robesoncoshrine.com.
The Robeson County unit has been around since 1996.
“We want everybody to see us as an entertainment,” Smith said. “When we do that we want them to remember what we’re there for and that’s to advertise for the shrine. That in turn keeps the hospitals open for these children.”
— Reach features editor Amanda Munger at 910-272-6144 or firstname.lastname@example.org.