TEGA CAY — A man from Tega Cay Baptist Church pushed his shopping cart out of Wal-Mart on Monday afternoon, stopping to talk and shake hands with the man in a Santa Claus suit standing outside the store.
“Hey!” the man called out, bringing his cart to a halt.
Of course, every shopper making last-minute purchases would recognize Santa on the day before Christmas Eve.
But, this man knew this Santa by another name.
“Hey, Skip!” the man said.
Santa adjusted his pearly-white beard, said, “Hey!” and stuck out his right hand. In his other hand, he held a familiar Christmastime item – a Salvation Army bell.
Skip is not just any other Santa, bringing smiles to kids’ faces and wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas.”
On Monday, he was a Salvation Army Santa, giving back to the organization that has helped him many times.
The shopper recognized him because he spent Sunday evening at a Christmas party Tega Cay Baptist threw for about 10 people who are homeless and living in Fort Mill.
Lester “Skip” Frankenfield has been living in a Fort Mill homeless camp in the woods near Carowinds Boulevard for nearly six years. Among those who help provide services for the homeless and those who pass through Frankenfield’s camp, Skip is known as the leader.
He’s quick to help others – whether it is sharing his food with another homeless person or helping connect them to charitable groups.
Earlier this year, he received some much-needed help himself, from Renew Our Community in Rock Hill. The group started a weekly shuttle service to provide rides for the Fort Mill homeless to Rock Hill, where many of the services they need are located.
For homeless people, Frankenfield said, transportation is one of the biggest challenges.
“There’s all kind of help out there but we can’t get to it,” he said. ROC rides are “a blessing.”
Access to services such as job counseling, substance abuse help and advice on finding an affordable place to live has helped some of Fort Mill’s homeless get off the streets or closer to a better living situation, Frankenfield said.
ROC didn’t directly arrange Frankenfield’s gig as Santa, but it did connect him with the Salvation Army. For the past month, he has been ringing his bell in Tega Cay – first at Walgreens, now at Wal-Mart.
The temporary Salvation Army job will put some cash in his pocket and collect donations that will go to help many people in situations similar to Frankenfield’s.
“This is a way for me to give back to the community, because they’ve helped me out,” he said.
Frankenfield – a Pennsylvania native and Army veteran – enjoys being Santa.
“It’s great to see (the kids’) faces when they see you,” he said. “Their eyes light up.”
At the top of the Santa list for lots of kids, he said: marshmallow guns. While he’s sure Santa will oblige their requests, Frankenfield himself is not entirely sure what a marshmallow gun is.
What he does know is that he’s happy to be working and happy to give back to the Salvation Army.
His journey, with ROC’s help, is a great success story, said Jenny Overman, the group’s community relations specialist.
As a reporter for the Fort Mill Times before going to work for ROC, Overman wrote several stories about the Fort Mill homeless camp. On her first trip there on a cold January day, Frankenfield was the first person she met.
Immediately, she said, it was apparent that he’s “a kind and generous person.”
During about a year of reporting, she met the dozens of homeless people who passed through Frankenfield’s camp and learned that few resources for the homeless were available in Fort Mill. A phone call to ROC founder Dale Dove led to the weekly van run that now takes Fort Mill’s homeless to the ROC center in downtown Rock Hill.
ROC’s services are geared toward restoring a person’s dignity and sense of self-worth, Overman said, by helping the homeless find jobs or providing food and access to computers.
On Monday, standing in front of Wal-Mart about 4 miles from where he and others live in the woods, Frankenfield said that with ROC’s help, someday, he will no longer be homeless.
He wants to be in a “better position,” he said, not only for himself but also so that he is better able to help other people who are struggling.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068