Against the late afternoon sun, a steady stream of motorcycles – nearly 200 of them – streamed into Huntington Beach State Park. Members of the Reapers Motorcycle Club, and others who joined them, drove across the causeway, through the park and past the site where the former Nature Center once stood before being gutted by fire nearly two months ago. The ride was part of a Poker Run designed to help raise money to rebuild the Nature Center.
“Going through the park was great,” Mike Petrizzo said. “Seeing the site where everything used to be was kind of depressing. But hopefully, everything we did today will help get things going so they can get it back up again.”
Rose Mogilka described the ride as spectacular. “It was absolutely awesome, just seeing everybody come together for a good cause.”
Sheldon Banks came up with the idea for the fundraiser.
“I’m a Park Ranger at Huntington and I’m also with the club,” he said. “I knew that a lot of people went to the Nature Center just from working there. I figured it would help the park service and allow the club to help the community.”
The Reapers immediately got behind the idea.
“Everybody loves Huntington Beach State Park,” noted Chris Price, who helped organize the event.
The group decided on a Poker Run that would start at biker bar Suck Bang Blow in Murrells Inlet, travel down to Georgetown with stops along the way, then loop through the park on the way back to Murrells Inlet. Once back at the bar, there would be door prizes, raffles and a silent auction. As club members began telling people about the benefit the response was overwhelming. Bikers were ready to ride and businesses began generously donating gift certificates for restaurants and other services. There were also bigger prizes given for the silent auction that included a golf package, group fishing trips, a learn-how-to-scuba dive package, a keg party and much more.
“I mean, we’ve had just numerous, numerous amounts of support from both (Georgetown and Horry) counties,” Price said. “Everybody was so excited with all of the stuff we had.”
He was also pleased with the number of bikers who turned out.
“Anytime you a have a ride with over a hundred people that’s awesome. And we had close to 200. It was a great turnout.”
Allen Lipford and Debbie Swift were among the first to arrive to sign up Sunday morning.
“It’s for a good cause and we love to ride,” Lipford said. “We wanted to raise money and help out.”
Robert Greene, who lives in Boone, North Carolina was also happy to donate time and money for a good cause. “That’s what it’s all about. If I’m here, I can do it. “
Riding partner Cathy Adams said she wanted to support the community. “I just moved here and had not been to the Nature Center, but had heard good things about it.”
As more people began arriving to register for the event, Suck Bang Blow General Manager Bill Barber noted that bikers along the Grand Strand are well-known for coming together to help where needed.
“We have a mentality in the biker world that when one of our friends or fellow comrades go down, get hurt or whatever, we immediately do something to help them,” he said. “And it transforms into other things, too. We’re all involved in different things and when anything touches us, our people jump forward and want to help.”
The Reapers fundraiser is one of several in the works to help build a new Nature Center. The former three-story building that housed educational exhibits, displays, aquariums, a touch tank and an array of reptiles, fish and other animals was struck by lightning July 20th. The fire moved so quickly firefighters were unable to save it or any of the animals inside.
“It was devastating,” Park Manager Brenda Magers said, noting it was especially difficult for those who had worked closely with the animals for so many years. But the loss also affected others outside the park.
“Many people who have reached out to us had memories of being there with their own children or grandchildren or maybe their children when they were younger and are now grown. The Nature Center really gave people a place to connect with their families and make memories.”
The debris has since been cleared and the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism has committed to replacing the building. Money raised will be used to pay for exhibits and other things inside the new facility. Magers says it’s not clear yet how much that might cost
“They will probably have to do some more work and look at the exhibits,” she said. “Do we want the same thing that was in there before? Do we want to tweak it a little bit? It’s a little early to put an exact figure on it.”
She says the community’s generosity and dedication in working to rebuild the Nature Center has been both surprising and heartwarming.
Banks says the fundraiser turned out even better than he expected.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better day,” Banks said. “And I can’t express how grateful I am for the community coming together.”
Organizers says it will take a couple of days to get a complete total on how much money was raised.
There are other community fundraisers underway to help rebuild the Nature Center.
BisQit restaurant in Pawleys Island will donate 10 percent of all proceeds after 4 p.m. on Monday(Sept. 19) to the Nature Center. The Black River Outdoor Center will offer a kayak tour of the salt marsh at 4 p.m. on Sept. 26. All proceeds will go to the Nature Center. And Paint and Unwined has two upcoming fundraisers with the next one on Oct. 21.
To make an individual donation to the Nature Center Rebuilding Fund, go to http://www.friendshbsp.com.