Bikers bring toys to Sagamore Children's Psychiatric Center

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"Santa" as played by President of the LI Harley Riders Club, Fred Hartmann, of Smithtown, waves to the group of participants as members of the LI Harley Riders club hold their 12th annual Holiday Toy Ride to benefit the children at the Sagamore Children's Psychiatric Center in Dix Hills. (Dec. 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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About 75 leather-clad members of the L.I. Harley Riders club, with teddy bears, Barbie dolls and board games strapped to the backs of their shiny bikes Sunday morning, performed what could be their last toy delivery to the children of Sagamore Children's Psychiatric Center in Dix Hills.

The Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts' club, which includes some 200 members across Long Island, has delivered gifts to the children of the state's long-term psychiatric hospital for 12 years. The state plans to close the facility next July despite a movement among parents and local politicians to try to keep it open.

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"Motorcyclists are misunderstood and so are these children. We feel a real connection to these kids and it is always a cherished event," said rider Dominick Mazza of Bellmore.

The bikers gathered in Huntington and took the 4-mile ride to the children's hospital together -- with club president Fred Hartmann in a big red Santa suit out in front.

They were greeted by hospital staff members, many of whom come in on their days off to attend the event. More than 100 toys, clothes, toiletries, athletic equipment, board games and books were unloaded in the gymnasium where cookies were served. About 30 of the patients, ranging from 10 to 18 years old, sat on bleachers to watch the hospital's executive director, Tom McOlvin, present Hartmann a plaque.

In unison, the patients gave a resounding "Thank You" that echoed through the gymnasium.

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"Even though I'm a 'biker,' I can admit that brought tears to my eyes," said Hartmann, 69, of Smithtown.

Sagamore, the only state-run psychiatric hospital for children on Long Island, was notified last July that it would lose its 54 beds as part of a state plan to merge inpatient psychiatric centers in favor of community-based services.

Local children who require hospitalization would go to facilities in Queens or the Bronx. Parents say the plan would put a hardship on families, who are essential to the care. Local lawmakers are backing a Senate bill that would freeze the hospital's closing.

"This place saved my life," said Megan Knox, 17, of Ronkonkoma, who has been an inpatient since September. Knox suffers from severe depression with suicidal tendencies.

She said the bikers' gifts made her feel like the local community cares about her, she said.

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"It is great to have everyone supporting us here."

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