By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
Santa and Mrs. Claus made a surprise stopover and delivery at the 6th Annual Rides and Rods Toy Run on Saturday, November 18. To get in the spirit of the annual event, Santa pulled up to the Kernville Saloon under bright blue skies on his Harley Davidson motorcycle, packed to the gills with toys to give to local needy kids. The Kern Valley Rides and Rods Toy Run, now in its sixth year, is a poker run to provide needy children with toys over the holidays. Nikki Stuart, the event’s founder and driving force, explained the charity’s origin. “John Davis, the endearing ‘Santa Claus’ of Kernville, passed away, and I was convinced to do a poker run to bring in more toys for the needy kids to honor him. It was only supposed to be that first year, and it just kept going after that.”
When Stuart started her event, she had no idea that a Bakersfield Toy Run even existed, that is, until Santa and Mrs. Claus dropped by with a sizable donation. “They just showed up and brought me toys last year,” says Stuart. The Claus’s are played to perfection by Scott and Katie O’Neill, avid bikers themselves, who stepped in to help the Bakersfield Toy Run and Food Drive in 2008, held every December for the last 35 years, as a favor to that event’s founders, Tim and Debbie Harmon. Although the Harmons died tragically the following year in a motorcycle accident here in the valley on Sierra Way near the airport, the O’Neills decided to keep the tradition going to honor their friends and help the community. As time went on, the O’Neills put together a website and Facebook page, and got sponsors like Bakersfield Harley Davidson, Northwest Metrology and Holmes Oil Well Service that enable them to buy toys to donate to charities and events such as this one.
Heavily involved with our local Masonic Lodge and Eastern Star Women’s Auxiliary, the O’Neills visit the valley regularly. “We heard about this toy run,” says Katie. “It’s close to home, we have friends up here, so, here we are. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Stuart, who not only provides the seed money for this local event, but also does most of the leg work on her own and even pays for some of the amazing raffle prizes from her own pocket, is grateful for the O’Neills’ time and generous donations to the cause. “We are always looking for volunteers and donations,” Stuart says. “And these two just showed up out of nowhere. It’s a huge gift.”
This year’s Poker Run had stops at Ewing’s in Kernville, the Order of the Eagles in Mountain Mesa, the Y-Knott Saloon in Bodfish, the Hideaway in Wofford Heights, and back to home base at the Kernville Saloon, taking the riders and drivers, since the event is not limited to motorcycles on a beautiful loop around the lake on a sunny and clear Saturday afternoon. Once back at the saloon, participants were able to turn in their “poker” hands, kick back, listen to live music, and find out if they won the pot. Although 75 percent of the entry fees from the run goes to the “high” and 25 percent goes to the “low” hand, most of the time, the winners donate a good portion of the money back into the toy fund, just happy to be able to be a part of the event and enjoy the camaraderie. Stuart is also quick to point out that “if you want to donate, you don’t have to do the poker run. You can just come to the saloon and donate $ 10 or a new, unwrapped toy, and buy raffle tickets for our prizes.” This year, the event boasted a deluxe outdoor grill, a big screen smart TV, and a heavy-duty gun safe, among the items up for raffle.
Even though it gets tougher for Stuart to put on this event virtually single-handedly every year, she just can’t quit. “Every year we think it’s going to be the last, but I keep doing it because I look at some of the things families are going through, and I think, ‘Oh my gosh, they need help,’ so I just keep doing it,” she says with a smile.