Saturday morning, a crowd began to gather in a parking lot on Broadway Street in the heart of downtown Myrtle Beach – arriving from as far afield as Charleston to participate in Santa’s Toy Ride 2016, a bicycle event spearheaded by James D. Cooper of Cooper Mechanical Services in Myrtle Beach to benefit Help 4 Kids, a local children’s charity.
By 9:30, dozens of participants – many in cheerful holiday garb to go along with their decked-out bicycles – pedaled out for a casual ride around Myrtle Beach, which included stops at Ripley’s Aquarium, St John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Liberty Tap Room & Grill and Bummz Beach Café before completing the circuit at The Taverne on Broadway Street.
The event has been taking place since 2012.
Cooper was looking for a community-driven charity, and he found that in Help 4 Kids.
“I was looking for a way to help children in our local area. Help 4 Kids does the Backpack Buddies program and sponsors other programs throughout the calendar year,” he said.
The Help 4 Kids Backpack Buddies program feeds more than 3,000 children a week in 29 Horry County Schools, according to its website, www.help4kidssc.org. It also provides resources like school supplies, clothing and shoes.
Cooper added that executive director and founder Barb Mains had no idea about the toy ride until he showed up that first year with a truck full of toys.
“I like that every year I go out there and I see the same group of volunteers working on these local issues like helping kids with day-to-day meals or school supplies and clothes – not just Christmas toys – and the fact that it is a year-round operation makes me feel a lot better,” he said.
There were drop-off points at six local businesses: Cooper Mechanical Services, Beach Bike Shop, The Taverne, Seaboard Signs and Engraving, Re/Max Southern Shores and Pee Dee Bicycle.
Mains said the Christmas toys are not distributed surreptitiously in backpacks.
“We have Christmas for the families,” she said. “The volunteers pack them up, fix them up and then put the families’ names on them – and then they get delivered. We do Christmas just like Santa Claus, except we are in white vans instead of a sleigh.”
She added that she thought it was wonderful that the folks doing the toy ride would get out in the cold and do that for her organization.
“They know that there are kids who need it,” she said.
Thankfully, the weather cooperated Saturday.
But a big part of Santa’s Toy Ride is the camaraderie and what Cooper called festive shenanigans.
“Every year we make a couple of stops that are like a tradition. We always stop by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church for their bake sale,” he said.
Last year, things got a little tense.
“We were a much bigger group than we had been in the past, and I was unaware that they held services on Saturday,” Cooper said. “We were apparently making too much noise and disrupted the service – and the priest came out and gave us some stern words about being respectful at the church.”
But as they say, it’s all good.
Every year, the idea is a casual, fun ride with stops for food and, of course, good beer.
“We have a time frame, but we have plenty of time to go everywhere we would like to go – and we always ride up Oak Street – 50-plus deep – ringing bells, blowing horns and wishing everybody a merry Christmas,” he said.
Charleston-based Software developer and former Myrtle Beach resident Joel Watson said he got up “ugly early” to make the drive to Myrtle Beach for the event.
“We got up at a time when my wife was not pleased to roll out of bed on a Saturday morning, but it’s worth it and for a good cause,” he said, adding that he and his wife do this every year.
As a father himself, he sees this event as a way to give back – and to reconnect with friends.
“There’s toys, there’s kids and it’s a good excuse to have an easy way to help kids at Christmastime. It’s also important for us to reconnect every year and to bring more like-minded people into the community,” he said.
Danny Brown, operator of the Carolina Tarheel Motel in Myrtle Beach, was chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals for the City of Myrtle Beach for four years and served on both committees for the Ride 3 initiative. He is also the father of two.
“It’s important to help the less fortunate children and just get out and socialize with the people in the community,” he said, adding that Cooper’s work on this event was a motivating factor for him to get involved.
Camaraderie is the glue that holds this event together.
Myrtle Beach resident Stacy Vaughan said that she loves to ride bicycles and has been doing Santa’s Toy Ride for three years.
“I enjoy just being together with friends for a good cause,” she said.
Coastal Carolina University marine science professor Bradley Craig has also been participating in this event for three years. He works part-time at Pee Dee Bicycle.
“Between the ethos of it being that we are providing gifts and being able to come together around it – the event provides a way of supporting our community. Ultimately, it’s all about how we can help the community – for me at least because I enjoy that part of it. The ride is supplementary and a fun part of this event,” he said.
This year, unicorns came into play – and Myrtle Beach resident Mark Gillis was the focal point.
“It started as a joke. Somebody said something about unicorns and I made a comment that I think that’s just silly – so of course I have been bombarded with unicorns,” he said.
His bicycle and his person were loaded up with all things unicorn, but there was an upside.
Everyone who brought a unicorn or unicorn-related item to put on Gillis or his bicycle had to match that with a toy donation. Some people brought more than one.
“I have to play a role now,” he said. “Some people achieve greatness and others are thrust onto it. That’s where I am now.”
Last-minute donations can be dropped off at the Taverne or Pee Dee Bicycle on Sunday or at Cooper Mechanical Services on Monday morning.