Santa swaps reindeer for Harleys

Kids waved and toddlers covered their ears as Santa rolled up in a red convertible escorted by about 20 Harleys.

They pulled into the parking lot of Pretend City Children's Museum in Irvine as the final stop on their annual toy drive.

They had just finished picking up thousands of gifts that will be distributed throughout 2013 to patients at Children's Hospital Orange County.

Two-year-old Aiden Heiman pushed his wheelchair as close to the bikes as possible.

"He loves motorcycles," his mother, Hodelia Hayat, said. "He's never seen them this close."

Aiden may end up receiving one of the toys members of the Orange Coast Harley Owners Group collected Friday.

He is frequently a patient at CHOC, where he has been hospitalized about 30 times and undergone 11 surgeries for spina bifida, which leaves him without feeling from his bellybutton down.

He was recently discharged from CHOC and got to see Pretend City for the first time.

"He was rocking the place," Hayat said, "just pushing himself everywhere and checking things out."

Pretend City is just what its name implies, an imaginary, scaled-down city for kids, complete with local landmarks like Irvine's Fire Station 51.

Linda Hunter, its chief organizational officer, is a member of the Harley riders, and three years ago she suggested it become the last stop of the toy pickup.

"Educationally, I want these kids to learn about giving, so we've done the toy drive for that reason, and what kid doesn't love motorcycles," said Hunter, wearing a light-up Rudolph nose with her helmet and leathers. "And Santa happens to be my husband."

Volunteers quickly finished stuffing a truck full of gifts that will be handed out any time a CHOC patient has a birthday or just needs a toy.

Santa's motorcycle-riding reindeer had already made five stops that day, pulling in donations from across Orange County.

"Our third stop is a preschool," said chapter Treasurer Ron Browning. "That whole thing makes it worthwhile right there. The kids sing songs to us. They give us cookies and stuff like that. It steals your heart away."

In past years, as many as 1,000 riders have gathered for the culmination on Christmas Eve when riders deliver the truck to CHOC.

It's been temporarily scaled back to a smaller ride while the hospital is under construction, so riders were happy to see the awestruck face of at least one CHOC patient as Santa handed Aiden a candy cane.

A few of them made sure to high-five Aiden before they roared off.

"It's still as satisfying as it can be," Browning said.

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck

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