MONTPELIER – The 33rd annual Toy Run thundered its way through central Vermont on Saturday to support Shriners Hospitals for Children research programs.

A total of 344 motorcyclists turned out for the event that is a big draw for spectators along the route from Berlin via Barre Town and Barre City to the State House in Montpelier. Per tradition, many motorcyclists strapped soft toys to their bikes to be donated to children in nine Shriners Hospitals, along with books, games and donations of cash and checks to the organization that cares for sick children at no expense to their families.

The event is organized by United Motorcyclists of Vermont, which is dedicated to motorcycle safety, education, awareness, pro-motorcyclist legislation and individual freedom. Over the years, the event has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Shriners Hospitals, organizers said.

At BCBS in Berlin, Mike Burt, chairman of United Motorcyclists of Vermont, was on hand to welcome some of the oldest and newest participants to the rally since it first began as Freedom of the Road Vermont in 1986.

They included Vermont veteran Jeb Nelson, who has been present for every rally, every year.

“We do this for the children, which is all good for me,” Nelson said. “One year, we brought enough tabs off cans to buy 40 color television sets for the hospitals from the sale of the aluminum tabs, which they melt down to make more aluminum.”

One of the most recent riders to join the rally this year was Eric Rubino, of Windham, Maine, who road 160 miles to help as a marshal during Saturday’s ride.

“Today’s event meant a lot to me because it had something to do with kids,” Rubino said. “Anything to do with kids is definitely heartfelt when bikers come together for a benefit to raise money or collect toys for kids.”

The rally set out at noon, traveling via Barre Town and Barre City and arriving in Montpelier at about 1 p.m. Hundreds of people lined Main and State streets as motorcyclists threaded their way through the city to the State House, where bikers placed their gifts of toys, books and games on the granite steps.

Holly Wilkins, president of United Motorcyclists of Vermont, greeted the arrivals and thanked the many supporters of the event, including law enforcement officers that helped stop traffic along the route. Wilkins also thanked officials of the Capital City Farmers Market and Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos for arranging for the market to be at the Heney Lot to allow the rally to travel along State Street.

“Every single toy goes to a child that needs it but there’s also cash and checks which goes to the Shriners for research which has helped make wonderful discoveries in the past couple of years because of the research money,” Wilkins said.

Shriners Potentate Michael Parent also thanked bikers for their participation and generosity.

“If it wasn’t for you, this wouldn’t be happening,” Parent said. “You people are the greatest.”

Parent noted that this year’s motorcycle club pin features a camel riding a motorcycle — a direct reference to the fact that Parent wears a camel costume during Shriners performances at parades around the region.

Ms. Vermont Outstanding Teen 2019, Danielle Trottier, of Barre, said she was proud to support the Toy Run.

“I was really thankful to be here today and when I think of service and giving back to our community, I think of us all gathered here together to make a difference for others,” Trottier said, adding that she hoped her future successors would continue to support the event.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, was also on hand, and has ridden in 32 Toy Runs.

“I want to tell you that in my life as a state senator and as a lawyer, I’m sometimes asked the question, ‘What do you prefer to be in — a room full of lawyers, a room full of politicians or a room full of bikers?’ You guys know the answer to that question,” Benning said, to laughs and cheers.

There were also tributes and T-shirts for motorcyclists who rode the most miles, including bikers from Maine and New York, and the oldest participant, Worcester resident Patricia Dupont, and the youngest participant, Ziva Young, aged, 2, of St. Johnsbury.

Four gas cards worth $50 each were raffled, and participants were encouraged to buy $125 raffle tickets, with only 175 being sold, to win a “twisted cherry” Harley-Davidson Low Rider motorcycle worth $13,000, from Wilkins Harley-Davidson, in South Barre.

After the rally, bikers were invited to enjoy discounted meals at some downtown restaurants in the city and to attend an after-rally party at Wilkins Harley-Davidson.

To learn more about the Toy Run and United Motorcyclists of Vermont, visit http://unitedmotorcyclists.org/wp/

stephen.mills@timesargus.com

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