Toy Run featured in The Union 2011

Toy Run featured in The Union 2011

Thom Staser never intended to be a leather-wearing Santa Claus.

All he really wanted to do 20 years ago was have the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a helmet when he rode his motorcycle along California’s streets, roads and highways.

Fortunately for the estimated 24,000 children who have since been served, and the thousands of motorcyclists and others who have helped serve them, Staser took some of that pent-up frustration with the state’s helmet laws and channeled it into the Nevada County Toy Run, which will celebrate its 20th year on Saturday, Dec. 10.

Growing up in Nevada County (he moved here with his parents in 1957) Staser said he’d always loved motorcycles. “Back then there were a lot of places to ride dirt bikes,” he recalled, “and I rode everywhere.”

When the state lawmakers proposed a helmet law, Staser became one of Northern California’s most vocal opponents.

“For me it came down to choice and I believed, and still do, that people have a right to choose when it comes to their own safety,” he said.

What Staser discovered was that he had a knack for grassroots organizing and with the help of a few friends started the first Nevada County Toy Run. “I think we had maybe 90 bikes that first year,” he remembered. “This year we hope to see 1,500 to 2,000 bikes, which will allow us to serve maybe 1,200 or so kids.”

Riders — each one carrying a toy or food item to donate — gather at the Nevada County government center (Rood Center) on Maidu Ave. in Nevada City at 9 a.m. (there will be coffee and doughnuts) and riders take off from there and head to the Nevada County Fairgrounds at noon. The route is mostly off the freeway, as riders roll slowly down Nevada City’s Broad Street, up over the old Nevada City Highway, into Grass Valley along Main and Mill streets downtown and over to the fairgrounds.

“Spectators generally line the streets because they know they will see every kind of motorcycle known to man,” said Staser. “Helmets are mandatory and we really want to discourage the bikers from throwing candy.

“We haven’t had an accident in 20 years and we’d like to keep it that way.”

The parade of bikes moves at a relatively slow pace, especially through the two downtown corridors. The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, Search and Rescue team, Nevada City and Grass Valley police departments and the Highway Patrol help keep things moving along, holding traffic at critical intersections until the bikes can safely pass.

“We have worked hard to develop a great relationship with local law enforcement and we just wouldn’t be able to pull this off without their help,” said Staser.

Once the bikers reach the fairgrounds with their toys and food, volunteers gather them up and prepare them for the children and their families, mostly referred to the Toy Run by Head Start, or Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“We don’t refuse any child,” said Staser. “And the demand has never been greater.”

Those unable to participate in the Run may still donate toys (unwrapped) or food (perishable items, such as turkeys, hams, canned food, etc.) at the fairgrounds the day before the run (Friday, Dec. 9) from 3 to 6:30 p.m.

The event will run rain or shine, but Staser reminded us that, “It never rains on the Toy Run.”

He said the event has survived 20 years thanks in large part to the many longtime sponsors, including SPD Markets, Volz Brothers Automotive, Hills Flat Lumber, Premiere Tile and Stone and Ensemble Designs (Dave Woods).

“I’m afraid I’ll forget someone, so let them know we’ll be running a thank-you ad after the event,” he laughed.

Outside of filling a huge holiday need, Staser said what he enjoys most is watching the looks on the faces of some of the otherwise-tough bikers as they see how much joy their gift brings to a child.

“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “The fun for me starts when everyone shows up. We don’t do this for the thank-yous. We were dirt poor growing up here. The mines had shut down and in the winter dads would be out looking for work. My mom (Iris) would get a turkey at the store where she worked and we’d have 30 people over to the house. My mom and dad (Howard) took care of people and I just thought I’d help carry that on. My brother Steve helps, too.”

The event also features commemorative T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, which will be available to purchase online and at the event.

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