Panther Tracks

Cam Newton gives back to Charlotte in annual Santa Cam’s Surprise Sleigh

For Cam Newton, community involvement is a family affair.

That’s why on his day off Tuesday, the Carolina Panthers quarterback brought along his parents and young son, Chosen, with him into the Charlotte community to donate money and food, hand out gifts, play games with area school kids and sing Christmas carols at a local food pantry – all part of Newton’s third annual Santa Cam’s Surprise Sleigh.

Clad in Santa T-shirt, red leather pants and a red hat adorned with bells and pompoms – the kind of outfit that wouldn’t be surprising to see Newton don for a post-game news conference – Newton made four stops in Charlotte as part of his five-hour tour, which this year focused on hunger.

The reigning NFL MVP’s “sleigh” was a caravan of seven SUVs, a Food Lion truck and a police motorcade that accompanied the group through Charlotte as if carrying a sitting president.

“Everybody’s already in the Christmas spirit, and I love that about this community. As far as the kids, I just want to show my face as much as I can when I get an opportunity to,” Newton said.

Long self-described as a kid at heart, Newton last month also served a Thanksgiving dinner to about 800 kids at The Fillmore – a night that included turkey, mashed potatoes, games and the Mannequin Challenge.

Asked Tuesday how he’s able to quickly command the attention of hundreds of children when he walks into a room, Newton smiled and said: “I think we have the same mental capacity. I think we have a lot in common.”

“When I come around people, I feel comfortable. It’s not about football, it’s not about income, it’s not about what I do for a living,” Newton said.

During Tuesday’s excursion, Newton distributed a total of $100,000 (roughly three times what he gave when he started the event in 2014) in funds, food and gifts for children and families in need at stops at Barringer Academic Center, Silver Mount Emergency Food Pantry, Bethlehem Center and SouthPark mall.

Newton was joined throughout the day by his “elves,” Panthers cornerback Leonard Johnson, and later guard Trai Turner. At Newton’s request, his parents, Cecil and Jackie, brought along his son Chosen, who was born on Christmas Eve last year to Newton and his longtime girlfriend, Kia Proctor.

“To whom much is given, much is required,” Cecil Newton said of his son’s community involvement. “This is what we do. This is what we’ve been doing since Cam was in middle school.”

Added Cecil: “I guess Cam wanted to start (Chosen) out early.”

Newton said he wanted his family, who lives in Atlanta, present Tuesday also because it was a rare opportunity to get everyone together during the season.

“I don’t always get to see them and be around them. So for them to be here today, it means a lot.”

Newton and Proctor are expecting their second child, though Newton’s parents declined to offer many details about the baby Tuesday.

Four stops

Newton’s first stop was the Barringer Academic Center, a school that serves a large population of underprivileged children from west Charlotte. About 100 grade-school-age kids packed into the gymnasium for what they thought was an assembly.

As if on cue, the room erupted into applause and screams when Newton strode in. He played games like “Simon Says” with the kids, then quarterbacked them into a picture formation with their teachers after presenting an oversized check of $30,000 to fund the school’s backpack program. Such a program provides kids in need with a backpack full of toiletries and food. The backpacks can sometimes provides the kids’ only food over the weekends, so the program comes just in time for two-week long holiday break, organizers say.

“It’s a special time of year. To be able to come with Cam to these events and bring to them food and joy over the season is really cool,” said Meg Ham, president of Food Lion, which partnered with Newton’s foundation on Tuesday’s event.

The next location was the Silver Mount Emergency Food Pantry, which serves low-income families. Newton there unloaded a truck full of $10,000 worth of freezers, food, toiletries and other supplies. He and his parents also joined in on singing Christmas carols like “O Holy Night,” and Newton took selfies with several volunteers and guests.

After that on Newton’s tour was the Bethlehem Center, which provides after-school and summertime activities for low-income kids. There Newton and his volunteers distributed bags of school supplies, games and toys and $100 Food Lion gift cards for families.

Families that Bethlehem Center serves don’t make a lot of money, so the grocery gift certificates go a long way, said Yolanda Bynum, director of the center’s after-school program.

“To see Cam, it’s like you know we’re important enough for someone like him to come see us. And not just drop off gifts, but come and talk to us and get to know us and laugh with us and play with us. I think it speaks volumes to them,” Bynum said of the kids Newton visited Tuesday.

The last stop included dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s for families from a Child’s Place, which serves homeless children and families. Newton treated families to $500 gift cards to Food Lion, and he gave 50 children $200 gift cards to Dick’s, where he took them after dinner for a shopping spree.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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