Poker run helps terminally ill kids

MECCA – It may not have looked like it, but Saturday felt a little like Christmas.

A group of motorcyclists calling themselves Santa’s Bad Elves connected with Santa’s Hideaway Hollow on Saturday for the seventh annual Santa’s Poker Run. The ride raises money so terminally ill children can spend one last Christmas any time of the year with their families.

A $10 registration fee allowed participants to join in several reindeer – or “biker” – games for a chance to win a prize. Along with a holiday-inspired dinner, the poker run included an auction, motorcycle cornhole, a DJ and live music provided by the band Jigsaw.

Bruce Durst, owner of Pooch’s in Mecca, said it’s not uncommon for his bar to support local fundraisers. He said that he and his wife, Paulette, have hosted charity events for more than 20 years. It’s their fifth year hosting the Santa’s Poker Run.

Though the entrance fee provided attendees with a meal and games, the primary goal was to show support for the cause and help Santa and his elves bring holiday cheer, regardless of the day.

What, Santa Claus isn’t real? Well, that simply isn’t true, and Christmas isn’t just in December.

William Dieterle is Santa Claus every day of the year, and has been so since 1981. Though his headquarters are in the North Pole, Santa built a 93-acre replica on Bundysburg Road in Middlefield Township as part of Santa’s Hideaway Hollow, “a non-profit organization … dedicated to working with terminally ill children and their families to provide comfort and support throughout the final stages of the child’s illness.”

Along with visiting hospitals and homebound children fighting to make it to Christmas, Santa Claus invites sick children and their families to his Hideaway. The retreat brings households together during a difficult time, promising them a place to spend at least one more Christmas day as a family.

“It’s not a public place. He sees terminally ill children only,” Mary Elwood said. “If kids are well enough to come to him, they can visit him at the North Pole.”

Mary and her husband, John Elwood, are two of Santa’s Bad Elves who manage the poker run event each year in hopes of raising money for the cause and to show participants how their proceeds contribute.

“We’re currently raising money to add Santa’s castle, so if a child won’t make it to Christmas, they can go to the North Pole any time of the year and spend the holiday there,” she said.

As of now, a day at Dieterle’s replica of the North Pole offers kids a magical opportunity to visit several shops and buildings, including the elves workshop, barbershop and reindeer barn. The children can even ride the North Pole Express or a sleigh through the woods.

However, the additional castle would offer a place for the children and their families to stay overnight, allowing them to have Christmas morning together, Mary’s husband said.

“That’s why we’re raising money for the property, so kids can come out and spend the whole day with Santa and then get up in the morning and spend Christmas together,” John said.

The couple said the Bad Elves originated after they heard about the Hideaway organization. John said his wife was so moved by the cause that Mary personally asked Santa if she could set a up a poker run to help raise money.

“He ended up asking her what a poker run was,” John said. “He OK’d it and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

While the route for the poker run changes annually, one stop remains the same. Each year the donors on the run have an opportunity to see first-hand their money at work, stopping by Santa’s Hideaway.

“It keeps the Christmas spirit with you. The first time I went I was in awe,” Paulette Durst said. “You can’t help but think of Bill as Santa. He takes such a good care of the kids, and all the helpers stay in character. Just imagine these poor children being able to celebrate Christmas 365 days of the year. It’s unbelievable.”

Santa isn’t the only one working 365 days a year to make sure each child has a Christmas morning, Mary and John explained the poker run is an all-year project and for the past few years it was funded straight from their pockets. This is the first year donations have increased.

Mary said there’s about 20 elves who volunteer the day of the poker run and many more who participate throughout the year with donations.

“Local bars donated items for the auction, restaurants donated gift certificates. Some even donate every year,” Mary said. “Plus, this is the first year we have vendors to help. They’ll sell a variety of items, from Tupperware to kettle corn.”

Though the vendors got to keep they’re revenue, each were charged the entrance fee and had to provide at least one item for the auction.

“All the proceeds go to Santa. And every year we get more donations,” Mary said. “This year AVI donated about four hams, three turkeys and potatoes. It’s great because the most expensive thing each year is the food for the holiday-themed dinner. The more donations, the less money out of our pockets and the more money for Santa.”

Blue Knights member Scott Steinhauser of Mecca said most people don’t realize motorcycle clubs across the nation partake in charity events, but he said charity runs are the best kind of poker runs.

“A majority of runs are to benefit people,” he said.

The Second Brigade and the Blue Knights were just two of the clubs whose members participated in Saturday’s event. Glenn Wilson Jr. of Cortland, the director for Warren’s Harley Owner Group (HOG), rode in first few poker runs and was back this year to help the cause.

“It’s just another excuse to ride a bike and help the children and families who are going through a terrible time,” Wilson said.