Highway to Help

toys for local childrenPhotos by Adrianne Mathiowetz

For more than four decades, this group of bikers has come together to help families in need.

On a sleepy Sunday morning in Bedford, a motorcycle roars down the town’s quiet main road and into the American Legion parking lot. Behind the motorcycle’s operator, a skeleton reclines in the passenger seat, a faux-bloody axe jutting from its exposed ribcage.

Inside the hall, dozens of men and women—most clad in leather jackets—pour steaming coffee into paper cups and scoop eggs and sausages from catering trays. Against the wall behind them is a pile of stuffed animals, board games, gift cards and even a toy drone.

Every October, these riders—members, affiliates and friends of the Massachusetts Motorcycle Association (MMA)—meet to ride 30 miles west from Bedford to Lancaster as a fundraiser for Toys for Local Children, a Somerville-based charity that provides toys to families in need during the holiday season and throughout the year. It’s the longest continuously running charity ride in the state, according to John Pecora, MMA district 1 manager, and has occurred annually for more than four decades. To participate in the ride, which winds along scenic country roads, bikers bring at least one item to donate to Toys for Local Children.

mass motorcycle association

“I pick something I think I’d want to play with,” says Jay Brislin of Lowell, between bites of breakfast. This year, he brought the drone.

Cindy Hickey, a Somerville resident and the director of Somerville’s Council on Aging, has headed up Toys for Local Children for almost a decade. She works closely with Pecora to organize the fundraiser, which originated as a partnership with Toys for Tots. Hickey was a volunteer there, but when she branched off on her own to start Toys for Local Children in 2001, the MMA stayed with her.

Hickey says she always wanted to run a charity with a local scope because it would enable her to make a meaningful, tangible difference in her own backyard.

“It’s the people, it’s the community,” she observes. “There’s no big corporations.” She remembers hearing of one family who received board games from the organization at Christmas and spent their entire winter vacation playing together as a family.

Over the years, Toys for Local Children has distributed tens of thousands of toys in Somerville and the surrounding area. The charity is particularly active around the holidays, but it also helps families who are displaced by fires or experience other difficult circumstances throughout the year.

“Cindy works her tail off,” smiles Debbie Connolly, who serves on the Toys for Local Children board. The work involved in running the organization, including coordinating pickup and dropoff from their warehouse space as well as administration and fundraising, is distributed among a small but dedicated group of board members and volunteers.

Across the country, motorcycle clubs frequently host fundraising rides as a way to bring their communities together for a good cause and a safe ride—and for fun. Sometimes they decorate their bikes in the spirit of the season. But there are often multiple rides each weekend during peak months, and Pecora noted it can be tough to attract bikers given that competition. In the heyday of this ride, he said there could be up to 1,000 people participating. This year, there are fewer than 20.

toys for local children

But the spirit and the enthusiasm have not subsided.

“It’s personal, and it becomes very rewarding,” says Dave Condon, MMA Chairman. “You see how generous people are. There’s a lot of people that give, and a lot of people that need.” Condon describes the MMA as an advocacy organization that promotes safety and education throughout the state—along with legislation relevant to motorcycle owners, including right-of-way laws that also benefit pedestrians and cyclists.

Many Somerville businesses and residents happily support the work of Toys for Local Children. Best Pest owner Rod Kreimeyer has collected toys, assembled toiletry kits and contributed gift cards to the organization over the past decade alongside his wife and grandsons. For Christmas this year, his grandsons are asking for donations to Toys for Local Children.

“We live in this city. We do business here,” Kreimeyer says. “We don’t [support Toys for Local Children] for the advertising … We do it because it’s a way to give back to our community.”

As the October breakfast concludes, Pecora calls a riders’ meeting to review protocol with the group and the two police escorts before setting off. He thanks those involved for their time and contributions to the cause.

“Hopefully, you guys have a good ride,” he says. “Any time on a bike is a good ride, I guess.”

Toys for Local Children drop-off facilities are located at several businesses around the city, including Best Pest, Winter Hill Bank and Flatbread. For the full list of donation locations, as well as information about upcoming events and applications to receive toys, head to toysforlocalchildren.org.

This story originally appeared in the November/December print edition of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.