It’s an arresting sight, the parade of hundreds of motorcyclists dressed in black leather cruising the highway, each one with a big teddy bear, a shiny truck, a new basketball or some other child’s toy strapped securely to the bike’s seat.
For 30 years, the annual SLO County Toy Run has been turning heads, but it’s also been generating new toys — as many as 2,000 per year — for the holiday season, along with food, warm coats and baby clothes for families in need in San Luis Obispo and Northern Santa Barbara County.
The event is open to all — not just motorcyclists — and the cost is minimal: a new, unwrapped toy and $5 for a plate of barbecue at a post-ride party in Creston.
For the riders and other attendees, it’s a fun, one-day event — always held the first Sunday in December — but it takes much longer to pull off. That’s where our heroes come in.
They are Toy Run Chairman Bernard Duque of Oceano and five board members: Cheryl Gilbride, of Arroyo Grande; Tex Neeley, of Grover Beach; Mary Comstock, of Nipomo; Ida Stone, of Templeton; and Clay Barks, of Santa Maria.
“We start our meetings in August or September, just to plan for that one day in December,” said Neeley. “It takes every one of those days and then some.”
The group lines up sponsors and donations for a benefit raffle; handles publicity; buys the barbecue supplies; prints commemorative T-shirts — tattoo artist Gary Ellsworth donates original are work; and, oh yes, keeps an eye on the weather.
In 2001, it rained so hard that only about 100 riders made the 45-mile run from Avila to Creston, and the toy drive came up short. Organizers then put out a call for donations and set up drop-off boxes around the county.And the work doesn’t stop when the event is over.
Gilbride takes a week’s vacation from work to sort, bag and distribute the toys to local churches and nonprofit organizations — including Child Protective Services, homeless shelters, sober living programs, boys and girls clubs, food pantries, which in turn pass them out to their clients. Gilbride also distributes to individual families she learns about, largely through word-of- mouth.
And it isn’t just small children who are helped. The Toy Run also provides gifts for teenagers — such as gift cards and electronic items — as well as food and clothing purchased with cash proceeds from the charity event.
It’s hard work, and as Neeley points out, unlike some Hollywood portrayals of bikers, this is for real.
“Toy Run’s always good,” he said. “It’s not what you see on TV, where bikers are a lot of trouble makers.”
We agree. For carrying on a decades-long tradition of helping families in need on the Central Coast, The Tribune salutes the organizers of SLO County Toy Run as unsung heroes.
Toy run details
The 31st annual SLO County Toy Run leaves Avila Beach at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4, for a 45-mile ride to the Loading Chute in Creston. Admission to the post-ride barbecue is $5 plus a new, unwrapped toy for a child or teenager, or $15 without a toy. The first 1,000 toy donors will receive a commemorative Toy Run pin.