Santa Claus got help gathering toys for needy Yakima Valley children Saturday morning.

Instead of elves, about 200 motorcyclists, most of them clad in black leather, took to the road with stuffed animals and other toys strapped to their motorcycles for a ride around Yakima. Escorted by Yakima police and with Santa leading them, the cyclists rode through West Valley before arriving at the Wray’s supermarket on South Third Avenue to drop off their cargo.

More than 40 years strong, the Salvation Army Toy Run collected not just toys but cash for the Salvation Army and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots drive. For the riders, who assembled at the Safeway parking lot at North 16th and West Lincoln avenues, it was a chance to ride on a clear, crisp fall day as well as do something good for the community.

“This is the one ride you don’t miss,” said Russell “Uncle Russ” Wentworth, a Selah resident who’s done the toy run nearly every time. He’s missed only two — one because he was ill and the other because of bike problems.

The holiday ride began in 1978, said “Ogly” Ray Matthews, president of the Unforegiven Motorcycle Club, who started the tradition. It was a snowy day, and 20 riders drove to the Salvation Army store on West Yakima Avenue to drop off toys.

Today, Central Washington ABATE, a motorcycle rights group, Bikers of Yakima Valley and the Salvation Army and the Marines’ Toys for Tots program co-sponsor the event, said Lisa Sargent, the Salvation Army’s community engagement coordinator.

At the time, Matthews didn’t think the ride was going to become a major event. But it became one as more riders donated toys and money to the cause.

“This is the biggest of the toy runs,” Matthews said. “We normally get about 300 people.”

On Saturday, he estimated that there were at least 200 riders participating in the run. For two hours prior to the start, bikers wearing jackets representing various motorcycle clubs in the area assembled at the Safeway parking lot where they ate cookies, drank coffee and visited.

“Nobody has a bigger heart than the bikers,” Matthews said. “We give to more charities than most people do. The biggest thing (with the ride) is it’s all about the kids.”

It was a sentiment echoed by other riders.

Nick “Tune” Wilson, with the Eagle Riders, said it gives him a good feeling inside when he thinks about the looks of joy children will have on Christmas morning when they find the gifts under their tree.

“It is an honor for our group” to join the ride, he said as he put a set of toy unicorns in a compartment on the back of his motorcycle.

Jan Clair, a Selah resident, had a “My Sweet Love” doll, complete with little unicorn, strapped to the back of her Harley Tri Glide Ultra. She’s made the run for several years and said it’s a chance to get out with friends as well as help a good cause.

The riders also conducted a 50-50 raffle, and the winner donated his $270 prize back to the toy drive, providing a total of $540 in cash donated by the bikers.

Yakima police’s motorcycle squad provided an escort, with Officer Halie Meyers’ police recruiter’s vehicle leading the cyclists on the route through West Valley while motorcycle officers blocked traffic at intersections for the convoy. Before the riders headed out, Sgt. Jim Moore of the department’s traffic division advised the riders to keep a tight formation so cars wouldn’t try to slip in.

Leading the pack was Santa Claus, also known as Malcolm Beard of Yakima. He’s been doing the Toy Run for four years, and the past two years he’s filled in as Santa, complete with white beard, red suit and black boots. A Santa hat covered his helmet.

“I loved it,” Beard said. “We had beautiful sunshine and a nice day for a ride, and it was a good ride for a cause.”

Sargent said the Salvation Army is accepting applications from families seeking assistance starting Monday and ending Friday. People can call the Salvation Army at 509-453-3139 for more information.

Reach Donald W. Meyers at dmeyers@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: donaldwmeyers, or https://www.facebook.com/donaldwmeyersjournalist.