Sometimes what you think are the right words just don’t fit. “Amazing,” “incredible,” “unbelievable”… All of these terms seem like they would fit, but none do. The Fresno County Hell’s Angels Toy Run is an event that has to be attended to be believed. I can tell you that there were 14 semi-trucks supplied by Walmart, Numark, and John Lawson, packed full of toys and bicycles, but until you park your bike among the hundreds of others, walk out to the street, and see all those trucks lined up for blocks, it can’t be adequately described. It’s grown over the years from a few toys in a pickup truck to what has to be the biggest toy run anywhere. So big, in fact, that this year for the first time, the event was held at Chukchansi Park, home of the Fresno Grizzlies, instead of at the Poverello House. The stadium was opened for this event so there would be room for all the kids, toys, and motorcycles.
A couple of years ago, you probably saw the photos of the big Hell’s Angel buying bicycles at Walmart. It went viral, and was seen by millions of people all over the world on social media. That Big Hell’s Angel is Merl Hefferman, and he has a heart as big as he is. This event is his baby, and like a proud parent, he’s watched it grow every year. Merl will be the first to tell you at least several times that he couldn’t do it all on his own, and he always makes sure to thank all the clubs, the sponsors, and the volunteers who work tirelessly to make this a success, as well as all the riders who attend, some from as far away as Arizona. From standing outside stores in the freezing rain 24/7 for days to be first in line for Black Friday sales, and collecting toys and donations, to putting the hundreds of bikes together, it truly is a team effort of monumental proportions. This year was Mel Swafford’s 18th year as Santa, and he got a standing ovation from the crowd. He has never missed playing Santa at this event. Merl and his toy run crew have already started collecting for next year’s toy run, since it’s a year-long effort to organize and promote this event.
Sign-in was at the Intimo Nightclub, and bikes were lined up for blocks in all directions waiting for the parade to Chukchansi Park. Music was supplied by Gus and the crew from 105.1, The Blaze, as the parking lot rapidly filled with roaring motorcycles, as did the side streets. There was a couple of hours wait for the ride to begin, but nobody minded, and we all spent the time talking to old friends and making new ones. They can say what they want about bikers, but there were dozens of different “cuts” flying their colors, and not a harsh word was spoken the entire day.
Before the ride started, Merl took over The Blaze’s microphone to thank all involved, and to give some last-minute safety instructions. The last of the donated toys were loaded into the truck, and the word was passed to “light ’em up.” With Merl, Santa, and the Red and White leading, the parade of bikes drew people out to watch us pass with as much enthusiasm as any holiday parade, and some waited in lawn chairs and on the curb for hours for the ride to start.
As we rode into the stadium, we kept to the outfield fence, and circled the entire stadium with motorcycles parked side by side. The trucks were backed in and unloaded by a “biker bucket brigade” onto a giant infield cover, and the stands were filled with kids and their parents anxiously awaiting their turn to pick out that perfect bike. This is the only present many of these kids will get this Christmas, and they were all trying to get a look at the bikes so they could point out the one they wanted to their parents.
Merl took the microphone again to address the crowd before the mad rush began. As he scanned the crowd, Merl was told that it was the birthday of a little girl who looked to be about four or five years old. Merl went up into the stands and got her, carried her out onto the field, and helped her pick out the perfect bike. It was an emotional moment, and showed the world that this was not about individuals, but about love and compassion for the kids who need it the most, and about the unselfish giving that marks the Christmas season. The remainder of the toys and bikes were to be handed out by Poverello House, Westcare, and Catholic Charities at Christmas, to bring a second round of excitement to these youngsters who have so little, and appreciate it so much.
The City of Fresno also opened Valdez Hall, a large room in the Convention Center complex, for the after-event party. There was a DJ to keep everyone in the holiday mood, and plenty of pasta, bread, and salad to go around before Merl cut the first pieces of the huge cake that was made especially for this event.
I have no idea how this toy run can get any bigger or better for next year, but if it can be done, Merl and crew will do it, and the only way to see this event is by coming to Fresno next December and riding with us! I’ll see you there.