Bikers playing Santa collect toys for poor 130,000 attend charity event


Eric Bretall looked west along Fort Smallwood Road yesterda morning. And for as far as he could see, the road was heavy with motorcycles -- hundreds of them -- all with engines thundering. And all coming his way.

Mr. Bretall was beaming. "Isn't this great?" he shouted over the roar.

About 130,000 people, most of them motorcyclists, came to Fort Smallwood Park in Anne Arundel County yesterday for the 12th annual Operation Santa Claus toy run, the biggest ever. The admission price to the daylong festival: a new toy, canned goods or a $5 donation, all to benefit the Salvation Army.

And all those motorcycles headed down Fort Smallwood Road -- along with hundreds traveling down Hog Neck Road, across Route 648, down Route 100 and along Ritchie Highway -- were bringing toys and food and money to the park. Mr. Bretall, the toy run's vice chairman, could not stop smiling.

Last year, when 100,000 people filled the park, Operation Santa Claus raised $35,000 for the Salvation Army and smaller charities plus two tractor-trailers filled with toys and three vans full of canned food. This year's event, which by police estimates drew almost one-third more people, collected even more.

Some 10,000 children in Baltimore and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties got Christmas toys and food from the Salvation Army because of last year's toy run, said John Kelly, a Salvation Army spokesman. This year, the Salvation Army hopes to use proceeds to open a food pantry in the city.

But this year's event, which features food, music, leather goods and motorcycle paraphernalia, almost didn't happen. This year, the city of Baltimore, which owns Fort Smallwood Park, and Anne Arundel County announced that non-profit groups would have to begin paying for such services as police and sanitation. In August, daunted by the fees that would have totaled about $110,000, the toy run's organizers canceled.

But when the group announced the cancellation, "People started coming out of the woodwork to donate things," said Kathy Davison, a spokeswoman for the toy run. Trash containers and flatbed trucks were given free, and some vendors discounted their charges. The city and Anne Arundel County renegotiated and lowered this year's fees. And the event was back on.

Next year, however, is a question mark, Ms. Davison said. Without some angels to help pay the bills, and the full government costs, no one can say where the toy run will be held or how many people it will be able to accommodate.

Yesterday, the motorcyclists were arriving with bags of groceries tied to their bikes and giant stuffed animals or boxes of toys strapped across the handlebars. Guys in black leather were handing teddy bears to gray-haired Salvation Army volunteers, who were loading trailers.

Teddy bears and motorcycles?

Why not, said Dan Daniels, one of the event's organizers.

"All these people here, they've got good jobs. They all pay taxes," said Mr. Daniels, an Ellicott City restaurateur. So why do motorcyclists have such a tough image? "Any time anybody on TV wants a bad guy, they put him in black leather and on a motorcycle," Mr. Daniels said.

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