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Santa calls late at boro center for disabled

Some 300 motorcyclists from the Independent Bikers of Queens, Toys for Tots Inc. - IBTFT, among friends - circled up by the Bandshell in Forest Park Sunday clad in traditional biker gear accented by the toy donations that many came bearing under arm.

Every year, usually in December, riders from the biker club collect toys for residents of the center, an activity that complements the group's year-round involvement with Bernard Fineson.

"They know us by name and we know them by name," IBTFT organizer Carmine Antonelle said of the center's residents.

Led by the "Santa Truck," a bright red 1955 Chevy pickup stacked high with donated gifts, the bikers took off two by two for Bernard Fineson's Queens Village campus as part of their 23rd annual toy procession.

The ride had been scheduled for December, but with back-to-back snowstorms that forced the cancellation of the first ride and then the snow date, organizers decided to hold off for May's milder weather, IBTFT member Vicky Capasso said. It drizzled throughout the morning, but Capasso had already said organizers were determined to make the run "rain or shine."

"For 22 years, we've had great weather," Capasso said, but this year was different.

Ed Schantz, who donned a Santa vest and hat to drive the Santa Truck this year, said the Forest Park meeting spot seemed to attract bad weather: In 1989, the only other time the riders selected the park as a starting point, it was a nippy 7 degrees outside.

IBTFT has been involved with Bernard Fineson for 23 years, Antonelle said.

"They were the only ones who would accept toys from a group of motorcycle enthusiasts," Antonelle said of the Bernard Fineson center, which also has a campus in Howard Beach.

"I think sometimes we get more out of it than (the kids) do," Capasso - the mother of two - said of the feeling she gets from helping out.

"It's like poison ivy: You can't stop it," Schantz said. "Every year it gets bigger and bigger."

The toy donation ride that started with just 17 bikes has blossomed into an event that has drawn as many as 15,000 bikers, Antonelle said. Schantz, a retired interstate truck driver, said bikers come from as far away as Canada and North Carolina.

This year the number of bikers was down, Antonelle said, because the event had to be rescheduled twice and occurred in the spring rather than during the Christmas season.

Dean McNamee, another IBTFT organizer, said the group raises between $30,000 and $40,000 for Bernard Fineson every year. IBTFT also organizes trips to the circus and Florida for residents and built an outdoor sun shelter - now known as the Bikers' Pavilion - with picnic tables and barbecues at the Queens Village campus.

Nine years ago the group created a scholarship for high school volunteers at the center, Schantz said.

The I Have a Friend scholarship program partners high school seniors with children and young adults at the center for activities such as movies and dinner outings. This year 12 students are slated to receive $600 a piece after spending a minimum of 60 hours with the residents over the course of a school year.

"They never do less than 100 (hours)," Schantz said. "When they stopped the clock, one kid even put in 1,000 hours."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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