Photography Cameron Flaisch
For some children, Santa sports the traditional holiday red, snow-white beard, and sleeping cap. He is sure to be waiting at the end of a long line of children at the mall, with the familiar rosy-cheeked smile and hearty chuckle. Though for other children – those less fortunate boys and girls who may expect a little less under the tree this Christmas – Santa Claus is sporting a new set of boots and leather chaps. Old St. Nick is trading his miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer for the chromed-out growl of a Harley-Davidson V-twin engine.
For several years, the Rome chapter of the Freedom Seekers Motorcycle Club has held a toy drive-themed motorcycle run to help the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots ensure every child gets a present under the tree this Christmas. The Freedom Seekers have decided to increase their presence with this yearly run, and called on the community to join their mission.
“This is our first year doing an event this big,” says Corey Camp, a four-year member of the Freedom Seekers Motorcycle Club. “This year, we wanted to get the community behind us to do something that would strengthen the entire Roman community, all the while helping out with the children who are in need during this time of the year.”
Starting things off at Rolater Park in Cave Spring, Ga., the motorcycle convoy paraded through town, escorted by the Rome Police Department as the crew made their way to the Coosa Valley Fairgrounds. Over 70 motorcycle enthusiasts roared through the Floyd County streets, wielding only goodwill and toys to donate to the cause.
The event welcomed all of the community to attend, featuring bounce-house inflatables for the kids, a barbeque food truck for lunch, an antique car and truck show, and the local fire department performing simulations of fire safety tips. But how does this charitable event go along with the free-spirited, often mysterious lives of Rome’s most notable group of motorcycle enthusiasts? According to Camp, it’s all about brotherly love.
“We’re here for the community, this is what we do.” Camp explains. “Of course, there are a lot of people who watch too much TV and get the wrong impression of us, but we’re just like other folks. We all have full-time jobs and hosting an event like this can costs us out of pocket. We love helping the kids in our city. We do it for the cause; it’s about brotherhood.”
This is not the only charitable work that the Freedom Seekers has been a part of. In fact, the Rome Chapter of this club volunteers and raises money for the local homeless shelter and celebrates their Thanksgiving by feeding the hungry.
Oftentimes, members of the community who are struggling to find a helping hand have found the Freedom Seekers there to support them. Still some, with the influence of today’s pop culture, choose to see these noble men and women as renegades.
Just as the Freedom Seekers strive to live a life free of judgement, and devotion to a common love for riding motorcycles, they also realize the importance of building up the entire community. Some members of the organization know what it is like to grow up wondering if Santa will bring presents to put under the tree for Christmas, making the reason for a toy drive important to them. For this club, it all comes down to utilizing their community to better the lives of another.
Because of the hard work and dedication of the men and women supporting this year’s Freedom Seekers Toy Run, a pile of new Christmas toys has been donated to the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots Organization. Children will have toys under the tree that would otherwise see a holiday come and go with nothing from Santa left behind. And though they may not have clean white beards or a red fur coat, these leather clad men and women set an example for how a community should take care of each another, especially during this season of brotherly love.
As ecstatic kids give their new toys and gadgets a spin on Christmas morning in living rooms strewn with crumpled wrapping paper, Toys for Tots organizers are already gearing up to shop for next year’s Christmas.
Local Toys for Tots volunteers are closest thing in Rome to Santa’s elves. They work tirelessly for donations, they continuously raise awareness of the charity, and they constantly scour the internet and newspapers for notices of toy store sales.
For Marti Robles, Floyd County’s Toys for Tots coordinator, the quest for Christmas morning magic never ceases, because when stores announce sales and discounts – even day-after-Christmas-sales – Robles is there to snag up deals for children for the next holiday season.
“After Christmas, when the toys go on sale, I start buying,” she says. “When stores have big sales, I go in and try to purchase what I can. I’m buying all through the year, trying to collect toys.”
That’s been the case for many other Toys for Tots coordinators during the more than six decades since the organization’s beginnings in post WWII America. In the late 1940s, Diane Hendricks, wife of Marine Maj. Bill Hendricks, tried to donate a Raggedy Ann doll to a child for the holidays, but couldn’t find a charity through which to do so. She urged her husband to help her establish an organization for needy children at Christmastime, and Toys for Tots was founded in 1947 in Los Angeles.
Maj. Hendricks, who was director of public relations at Warner Brothers Studios, used his influence to garner support from celebrities, leading Walt Disney Studios to design the iconic train logo.
To this day, the non-profit organization is run by the United State Marine Corps Reserve, but since the late 1990s, the charity can be coordinated by civic groups in towns that lack Marine presence. For the past seven years, the Exchange Club of Rome has organized Floyd County’s Toys for Tots program. Additionally, each year the Rome High School ROTC helps with distribution.
But it’s not easy to secure enough toys together for the community’s kids, Robles says, and often locals only start to think about holiday-focused charities in mid-October.
“We get tremendous support in toys, but it’s quite often not enough,” she explains. “It’s difficult to get enough toys collected; last year we served 2,300 children here in Floyd County.”
Toys for Tots serves kids from newborn to the age of 12. According to Robles, the charity doesn’t go above age 12 because teens typically want electronics, which goes beyond what Toys for Tots can do financially. And while other Christmas charities accept toiletries and clothes, Toys for Tots focuses solely on procuring toys.
Anyone who demonstrates a need can sign up for Toys for Tots. Recipients can be families who fall below the poverty line or families who have recently suffered a loss – a job, a loved one, a home – that has resulted in tight finances. Robles said families can sign their children up at Good Neighbors Ministries during a designated week in November. And because so many do sign up, there is a constant need in Floyd County for Toys for Tots.
“We need toys, we need donations to buy more toys, we need adult volunteers for the sorting time, and we need bilingual volunteers for distribution day,” Robles says.
Buzz Wachsteter, an Exchange Club member, volunteers with Toys for Tots each year.
“We adopted it with open arms,” he says. “It’s a wonderful community service project.”
The former city commissioner says it’s important to donate volunteer services to our community whenever one can. “Everyone needs to give back and serve the people,” he says. “When you have the opportunity, you need to give back.”
Toys for Tots, Wachsteter explained, is a 12-month-project, and he has a lot of administrative duties. He keeps track of toys that have been donated by sorting them by gender and age. He also enters all the information into a database to better keep tabs on the charity’s year-long progress.
“But I like to do the hands on things, too, like registration and distribution,” he says. “It does your heart good when you’re registering these families and parents come up to you, grab your hand, and hug you and say thank you. It’s amazing, their sense of relief.”
Both Robles and Wachsteter said that the public can share this joy by donating a toy, money or even batteries.
“How many times have moms that aren’t using Toys for Tots bought toys and forgotten batteries for them? It happens,” chuckles Robles. “We always try to give two sets of batteries for each toy that requires batteries because on Christmas morning, we don’t want a child to get a toy and not be able to play with it. We try to eliminate that frustration on Christmas mornings.”
Because Toys for Tots is often only remembered during the latter part of the year, when money is tight for most families trying to scrounge and save for the holidays, Robles offered some creative strategies for people to collect toys throughout the year.
I like to encourage people to think of unique ways to do drives for Toys for Tots,” she says. “Say Grandma and Grandpa are celebrating their 80th birthdays. They don’t need gifts, so why not ask guests to bring a toy for Toys for Tots instead?”
Robles added that if, by the end of the year, a company happens to have more money than it anticipated, they can donate to Toys for Tots, and that money will go toward helping kids the following Christmas.
“If you’re buying a birthday present for your child, your niece or nephew, whomever, and it’s a good sale, and you think, ‘Oh, they’ll love this!,’ go ahead and buy two, one for the child and one for Toys for Tots,” she says. “It’s a good time to buy in the middle of the year, while it’s on sale. That way it doesn’t hurt so bad when you’re trying to provide Christmas for your own family.”
She also suggested that companies or departments compete with each other throughout the year to see who can raise the most toys.
To make it convenient for the public, there are drop boxes stationed at various local businesses where people can deposit a toy donation. Companies who are interested in hosting a Toys for Tots drop box can register at toysfortots.org, and you can also visit the website to find one near you.
A small donation of a toy, some batteries or money with which organizers can buy toys will make every difference for a family in Floyd County this Christmas.
“Imagine the smiles on kids’ faces on Christmas morning because the people of Floyd County have given,” Wachsteter says. “It makes it all worthwhile.”