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Toys for Tots roars out of Richmond Hill

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The 20th annual Toys for Tots toy run was organized by the Independent Bikers of Queens to raise awareness, money and toys for children at the Bernard Fineson Developmental Center in Howard Beach.

"This is not about the bikers. It is about the kids," said Gus Bertram, a biker with long hair, goatee and an ankle-length black motorcycle coat. This was the Maspeth resident's 20th run for the kids of the Bernard Fineson Developmental Center.

"They don't have Christmas and we bring them Christmas every year," he said.

Bertram's girlfriend, Robin Schnee, who has been part of the run for the last 12 years, said the ride was not a "one and done" thing. As she hustled through the crowd selling T-shirts to raise money and commemorate the event, she said the Queens bikers work with the center throughout the year building solariums and funding therapeutic and recreational facilities for its residents.

The Bernard Fineson Center at the corner of Crossbay Boulevard and the Belt Parkway is run by the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. The agency serves children and adults who are mildly to severely retarded or disabled by birth defects, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.

Over the past 20 years the money raised from the run has been used to buy electric hospital beds, wheelchairs, exercise equipment, swimming pools and a 40-by-60-foot sun shelter, said Michael Schneider of Glendale, a spokesman for the Independent Bikers of Queens.

The bikers gather once a year at Hillside and Myrtle avenues to make the eight-mile ride to the center in Howard Beach where they shower the children with gifts and fun.

"The best part of the day is seeing the children's faces when we walk into the center," Schnee said. "They know we are coming and are ecstatic."

This year's event, similar to past runs, attracted more than 10,000 bikers from all walks of life and motorcycle preference. The majority of bikes were decorated with toys that ranged from stuffed animals to Barbie dolls to board games. The ride raised about $35,000 and a slew of toys for the center, said a spokesman for the bikers group.

"It is a great feeling and for a good cause," said Linda Baltusis of Middle Village, who was making her 10th Toys for Tots run accompanied by her daughter Lauren, son Brandyn and husband Tom. "The run starts off the holiday spirit and the kids get to see what others don't have and how fortunate we are."

Lauren, who attends IS 119 in Glendale, was carrying a sign and making an impassioned plea to help two girls from St. Stan's CYO who were hit by a car at Hamilton Place and the Queens Midtown Tunnel Expressway on Nov. 7. She said all of the local CYOs had come together to help raise money for the two girls.

"It is exhilarating," said John Taylor of Richmond Hill, who was participating in his third run. "The bikers are great people but have bad reputations. They are the best bunch of guys that you will ever meet. They take everybody for who they are."

As the bikers revved up their engines in anticipation of the start of the run, some of the more than 500 community members watching the extravaganza covered their ears while others cheered the riders on.

Liliana Zuniga of Richmond Hill, who was watching the start of the ride with her daughter Anelisa, 8, said it was the sixth or seventh year that she has attended the event. She said she got a kick out of watching all the bikers descend on her neighborhood.

"It is a great event," said John Kranjac of Rego Park who rode in the event last year. "It is great to see everybody get together for a good cause."

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