New London— Santa came early, cruising on a motorcycle Sunday afternoon to deliver presents from Mike’s Famous Harley-Davidson to Camp Harkness in Waterford as hundreds of his leather-clad apprentices trailed behind him.
The Gift Run, organized by the New London County Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) chapter and Mike’s Famous Harley-Davidson, was absent last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but returned for its 42nd year to benefit people of all ages served by the Department of Developmental Services.
Jim and Candy Costello, or better known as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, have led the annual bike run for the past 25 years after it was passed down to them by founders Dan and Rose Werner.
Jim Costello said he was asked to assume the position of Santa because he has the beard for it.
He said what brings him back every year are the same people he met at Camp Harkness when he started, some of whom were children then but are adults now with children of their own. Camp Harkness, a park for people with disabilities, is operated by the state’s Department of Developmental Services.
Costello estimated there were 400 to 500 registered motorcycles with over 500 gifts and at least 20 sponsors. He said the bikers were from all over the region.
Members of the Guardians of the Purple Heart in Jeeps called themselves “Nutmeg Jeepers” and assisted the bikers on their journey by blocking roads.
Tony “Sparky” Dieli of Cromwell is the Senior Vice-President of the New London Motorcycle Club, the same club the Warners belonged to their entire lives.
The New London Motorcycle Club is a sponsor of the event and partakes in many community events such as bike lessons in the Spring, Dieli said.
“The gifts are for people who would otherwise not receive many gifts,” said Dieli.
The Hawk Riderz are a group of bike enthusiasts from Hartford, and this was their first time joining the event as a group. Mac Swinyer, a member of the group, has attended the event for the past eight or nine years. He said he likes to do the gift run to help out, and it reminds him of his stepson with autism.
Pete Cortes, co-founder of the Hawk Riderz, said they had brought with them a “mix of everything” for gifts including girls and boys toys.
Dennis Blaise of Waterford doesn’t belong to a bikers group. For the past ten years, Blaise said he has attended the event with his family as a tradition and a way to remember his father, Richard Blaise, who died in 2012, and rode in the gift run for 25 years.
Blaise said his father was once president of the New London Motorcycle Club and enjoyed giving the children at Camp Harkness rides on his motorcycle, something Blaise and his brother continue to do in memory of their father as well.
He described it as an “emotional day” for them.
Blaise rides his father’s blue motorcycle every year at the event with his father’s ashes in the back seat compartment. The Blaises also brought with them hats and gloves and other useful gifts.
Vicki Severin, a camp director at Camp Harkness, said she has witnessed the gift run for 38 years. She said over 700 individuals and families in 14 towns have received gift cards and necessities from the event.
Robin Greer and her son Eyrich of East Lyme are two of those beneficiaries, and were awaiting the arrival of the bikes at Camp Harkness.
Greer said this was the first time in seven years her son attended the event due to job responsibilities, having done so every year prior. She said they were excited to see old friends and to get their gifts.