By Chip Rogers
Virginia Athletics Media Relations
There is a trail around the Rivanna Reservoir that features a beautiful view of the Charlottesville countryside. A favorite of local runners, the trail is a hike from Grounds, and it takes some initial effort to get there. It is relatively flat, and runners and hikers from all walks of life can convene in a common love of nature.
"The view is amazing, and you definitely have to earn it," Virginia cross country standout James Erickson said, "But when you do, it is completely worth it."
Erickson, an accomplished artist, has an eye for beautyboth external and internal. He appreciates the beauty around him, whether it’s the countryside where he runs or the inner beauty of the people in which he comes in contact.
Once a week, Erickson and his friend, Riley, pile into his Ford F150, throw some dry ice in the back to cool down ice cream treats, put up an American flag, turn on music and drive through the neighborhoods of Charlottesville, giving out ice cream to kids, the homeless and anyone else who might be attracted to the commotion.
"As a kid, I always looked forward to the ice cream truck since it always lifted spirits," recalled Erickson, who hails from the Detroit area. "It still does today, and what we can do through our work is just make a difference that day for those people."
The idea started innocently enough with the two friends brainstorming for ways to express their faith in a real way. After researching multiple angles, including the possibility of purchasing an actual ice cream truck, the two settled on just using Erickson's truck. They went to the store, purchased some dry ice, ice cream treats, attached an American flag to a bamboo pole and started driving through town on Memorial Day, blasting patriotic songs and handing out ice cream.
"It is a great way for us to interact with the people in the community," Erickson said. "We are so blessed to be able to help the people in Charlottesville and just make a connection with them."
Often the two are joined in the truck by those they meet in the street. Two homeless men, Jay and Fred, can often be seen in the truck, helping to hand out the ice cream to those who migrate to the truck during one of the stops. Students, both graduate and undergraduate, professors, and members of the community band together in the back of the truck, at stops, and throughout the entire process to strengthen the concept of community in Charlottesville.
Some of the people who follow along are riding bikes they built themselves through the Community Bikes program, another endeavor in which Erickson is heavily involved.
Each Friday and Saturday, starting at 2 p.m., the Community Bikes shop opens up downtown and children flock to the store where they build their own bikes using parts of bikes that have been donated to the cause. For a couple hours these young minds are filled with the intricacies of mechanical engineering and the sheer joy of making something as practical and as fun as a bike. When the bikes are finished and checked out by the adult volunteers, the creations belong to the makers. Not only do the children now have a bike that works, but they have the knowledge of how to build it, the camaraderie of those with whom they worked, and the boost of self-esteem that comes from finishing a worthwhile project.
"It is truly a joyful time we share," said Erickson.
The truck, the bikes, and the rest of the caravan travel through town, with no set route and no set plans. It makes stops here and there, picking up people along the way, coming over hills and entering neighborhoods with the sole purpose of spreading good will.
"Our route may be hilly, but our road of life should be flat," commented Erickson. "If you want to impact lives, you need to be on a level ground with those you come in contact. You can't approach someone as being higher or lower; it creates an uneven dynamic, and if that's the situation, you can't be as effective."
There is no question that Erickson is effective, judging by how many people are following this modern-day Pied Piper. And while he captures the joyous faces of those he has touched through his art, the sheer happiness he brings to the community is not captured but rather spread in the daily lives of them all.