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Little Flower

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Bikers rev up holiday cheer for children at Wading River campus

Santa Claus swapped his signature red hat for a black helmet and led hundreds of bikers from Babylon Town Hall to Wading River Dec. 4 to kickstart the holiday season for children and young adults in need.

For the past 30 years, the staff members and young residents at Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York have welcomed the Long Island Harley Owners Group to their Wading River campus for what has become Long Island’s oldest toy run.

The group bands together with other motorcycle clubs across Long Island to deliver gifts to the children of the not-for-profit charity organization. Little Flower, founded in 1929, provides programs and services to children, families and adults with behavioral and developmental disabilities living in the area, and offers residential services and compassionate alternatives to state-run institutions.

“I’m very thankful,” said Russell, 15, of Syosset. “They come out and they use their time, and play with us and do different things with us on their own time when they could be sitting at home.”

There are approximately 100 students between the ages 10 and 21 living on the Little Flower campus in cottage-style homes. Most of them are there primarily for educational purposes. The students are special education children with a variety of challenges who are referred to the organization by local school districts.

They struggle with mental, developmental and behavioral problems, but because the student body at Little Flower is relatively small, there’s more of a hands-on approach to catering to their individual needs.

“I’m very thankful. They come out and they use their time, and play with us and do different things with us on their own time…”

—Russell

Corinne Hammons, CEO of Little Flower, said the organization strives to help and embrace the kids as they are. She said often students come from tough circumstances and have challenges that can’t be helped at home or in local schools. She said she’s very proud to partner with the Harley group and have its longstanding support.

“We don’t take this partnership for granted at all; every year they could choose any charity and they keep choosing us, and we’re very grateful,” Hammons said. “The idea of them coming to us wanting to give is very meaningful for the kids, who sure look forward to it each year.”

While the Harley Owners Group is involved with several charities throughout the year — including veteran fundraisers — members of the group consider this particular event the one they look forward to most all year. It’s also the only event that non-Harley-Davidson owners can join.

Bob Brinka, director of the Long Island Harley Owners Group, said what keeps the group coming back year after year are the smiles on the children’s faces.

“Doing this for kids that don’t have a lot is really important to us … this is the one that’s most dear to our hearts,” Brinka said. “We look forward to making people’s lives a lot nicer and giving the kids something they don’t have. Because we have, we can give.”

He said this year the group had 276 registered motorcycles for the ride plus another 30 that joined them along their route.

Those at Little Flower watched in glee as bikers arrived in traditional fashion to the campus. The parade of Christmas-decorated bikes roared down a long driveway, each one equipped with a pile of gifts all donated by members. They brought everything from giant stuffed teddy bears to skateboards and remote control cars.

Maureen Fox, vice president of external relations for Little Flower, said for the kids, the event is all about the “spectacle” of seeing the bikers arrive.

“Doing this for kids that don’t have a lot is really important to us … this is the one that’s most dear to our hearts”

—Bob Brinka

The event went inside to the gym on campus, where children were excited to hop on stage and meet with Santa, played by Harley Owners Group member Nick Klopsis, and choose from the big pile of gifts. Chili and drinks were available, as well as holiday-themed entertainment. Some members joined children on stage to perform impromptu choir bell renditions of Christmas songs.

Thom Kister, a 12-year Harley Owners Group member, pointed out a beaming girl carrying a teddy bear off the stage and said he bought the gift three months prior to the event.

“It’s all about the kids and seeing their faces on the stage,” Kister said. “And when we do the precession, coming up, just having everybody out there waving really fills you up and makes you feel good. This is so different from everything else we do because it’s open to all the biking community. We love it and we love doing it.”

Chris Evel, a member of 30 years, echoed Kister’s sentiment.

“Nobody helps the community like the bikers,” he said. “Whatever [the kids] need, that’s what we’re here for. It could be anywhere on Long Island — we’ll be there to help.”

According to Fox, before the bikers hop back on their motorcycles and hit the road, some of them deliver gifts directly to the developmentally disabled residents on campus who are unable to get to the gym.

Alex, 16, of Bellmore, said not just the event, but the entire month of December is special for him and the rest of the children at Little Flower.

“It’s a nice thing that [the Harley Owners Group] does because it’s all volunteer … they didn’t have to come here,” he said. “This month is probably the best month for everybody here because we had the Christmas tree lighting a few days ago, and then next week we have a party, so all the kids are happy that we’re doing this.”

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Hailey Del Giorno, left, is out for a meal with three of the girls she works with at Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York in Wading River. Photo from Hailey Del Giorno

It isn’t typical for a 9-year-old to reject the joy of crafting a Christmas list from scratch, but that’s exactly what 22-year-old Setauket native Hailey Del Giorno encountered.

Del Giorno, a Ward Melville High School graduate, recently launched a campaign to raise money to buy holiday gifts for children she works with at Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York in Wading River. She works in Mary’s Cottage with girls between ages 9 and 16, providing foster boarding home care, residential treatment care and adolescent development. And while she said she knew raising funds would be a challenge, she did not expect the toys list to be equally as difficult.

“They seemed hesitant at first,” Del Giorno, who is now studying psychology at St. Joseph’s College, said about the young girls’ reluctance to share their holiday wishes. “They didn’t seem to want to get their hopes up.”

Del Giorno landed the Wading River job over the summer to satisfy her desire to help others in need and has since been working closely with the young girls, many of whom come from abusive or neglectful homes, every weekend over shifts that could run as long as 12 hours. Since June, she has been working on developing relationships with these girls, but it was not easy, she said.

The group did not openly trust Del Giorno at first, she said, often misconstruing her caring demeanor as intrusive or fake. But she made it a point to squash those misconceptions by working longer and longer shifts on a week-by-week basis.

“These girls have tendencies to be defensive, untrusting and resistive to authority figures because of what they have been through,” she said. “When I started getting to know the girls, I wanted to show them that I had a true interest in learning who they were as people.”

And with each passing week, and each blossoming relationship, Del Giorno said she saw the upcoming holiday season as an opportunity to give back and show the girls that she’s on their side.

Her co-workers and even family members jumped into action. The goal was to raise $5,000 for the girls so Del Giorno and her team could buy them holiday presents and take them out to dinner on Christmas somewhere in the community. She launched an online crowd-funding page via Gofundme.com and has since raise close to $2,000 of that goal, with more than two weeks left, and has spent weeks polling her girls with hopes of assembling a holiday items wish list.

“Hailey I’m so proud of you,” supporter Belinda Groneman wrote on the page. “You have a big heart”

Maria Adams also chimed in.

“God bless you for caring,” she said alongside her donation.

And even when she did get an answer, they were still selfless ones. Several of the girls Del Giorno approached used their holiday gift wishes as opportunities to request items for siblings or loved ones instead, including anything from Barbie dolls to paint brushes and portable Casio keyboards.

In the end, Del Giorno said she hopes to make a lasting impression on the girls and remind them that family does not have to be just along their bloodlines.

“In my family, we always practiced the concept of giving back to the less fortunate,” she said. “After [my family] learned to care about these girls the way I did, we felt we needed to give these girls an extra special Christmas … They are all unique and special in their own ways and shine so positively when they are passionate and excited.”