When Santa Claus rolled into Ronald McDonald House on Friday night, the red-leather clad fella flicked down his kickstand, hopped off his Kawasaki Vulcan, and dove right into the throngs of the mesmerized children that had been eagerly awaiting his arrival.
Rocco Malin is Motorcycle Santa — a concept he dreamed up in 2015 when, four days before Christmas, the former U.S. Marine and bartender decided on a whim to order a Santa suit online, buy some presents, hop on his bike and randomly deliver gifts to kids on city streets in Wilmington.
Four years later, Motorcycle Santa has a band of 20 elves and other costumed characters — like Frosty the Snowman, The Grinch, and Cindy Lou — who join him in his annual toy giveaway. And the extravagant event now includes a DJ and professional sound system, a custom fabricated sleigh that’s attached to the rear of his motorcycle, a flatbed carrying a holiday-themed tree house and a festive, twinkling trailer that hauls hundreds of presents.
And the gifts are now earmarked for kids sometimes facing life-threatening injuries or diseases who are being treated at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children and staying at the nearby Ronald McDonald House of Delaware (RMHDE).
There’s a reason Malin, 31, makes such a big effort to bring a smile to the faces of children undergoing serious treatments at the hospital. The Trolley Square Oyster House bartender himself has struggled with two conditions that would have crushed the spirit of just about anyone else — Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which caused permanent nerve damage to his arms, and Avascular Necrosis, a disease which leads bone tissue to die.
The pair of diseases struck Malin in his early twenties and he’s undergone 10 surgeries since then to his knees and hips and arms to halt their progression.
At last year’s holiday toys giveaway, Malin hopped out of a hospital bed just three days after surgery to fill his sleigh – and now the many trucks and flatbeds that follow behind him — to make sure kids at Nemours and RMHDE had gifts before Christmas.
With donations of gifts to his effort now topping a thousand, sick children at both locations dove into the treasure trove of toys, dolls, books and games that were piled high in three cargo vehicles. Kids were free – even encouraged – to take as many as they would like.
Some children at RMHDE made their way to the toys wearing pajamas and clutching a blanket. One had a mask to keep germs away. Nine-year-old Luke Amaguayo, from Middletown, PA, wore a helmet to prevent him from hurting himself should he have another seizure.
“The poor kid has had seizures all year – the doctors at A.I. think he had a toxic reaction to medicine he was taking for underlying conditions,” said mom Elizabeth Bush, who agreed to an interview with TSD. “He was in real danger – unconscious when he suffered his first seizure. It’s been really, really hard on him and all of us,” she said. Luke is now undergoing outpatient rehab at Nemours.
The Bush/Amaguayo family is no stranger to RMHDE. They have been coming to Nemours for ten years with daughter Daniella, 11, who has congenital heart disease and a pacemaker. Daniella spotted The Grinch – Malin’s good friend Matt Pace – and managed to find the book, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” among the thousands of toys. Then she hammed it up with Pace by posing for pictures with him.
Like most families at RMHDE, the Bush family will be there through Christmas. Mom Elizabeth said she couldn’t put into words what it meant for Motorcycle Santa and his team of volunteers – all strangers to the families there – to remember the sick children there. Struggling to pronounce his words due to effects from the seizures, Luke said, “It makes other kids happy. Maybe there will be cheer in the air tonight.”
Hearing Luke share the jingle, Malin said, “That might be our new tagline for this event!”
Pace, who has been Malin’s friend since birth, says he’s not surprised his good buddy has started something pretty special for kids at Christmas. “He is the most selfless person I know. He just has a good heart and wants to make sure everybody’s having a good time and is happy,” said Pace.
“Last year Rocco flew out to Ohio on the Monday before the toy giveaway to have surgery on Tuesday. Then I flew out on Wednesday to drive him back to Delaware because he had to make sure that this still happened. He did not care about his knees or anything else. He knows this has a big impact on the community,” said Pace.
“Being in and out of the hospital – seeing how intimidating it can be – it definitely gives me incentive to bring the kids a good laugh. The toys and the money are one thing. But it’s also the form of entertainment we bring. Giving kids a sigh of relief and being able to help them forget about whatever they might have going on in the hospital – that’s what it’s all about. That’s my main drive,” said Malin.
At a December fundraiser at the Trolley Square Oyster House, where Malin and his fleet of elves dressed up for the occasion, Motorcycle Santa raised $10,000 for the RMHDE, which he presented to the staff on Friday night. The donation will pay the rent for two rooms for a year at the home away from home for families who often drive a great distance for care at Nemours.
“Being a bartender is a huge help because I know a lot of people and they all want to help out,” said Malin. “But this is really the byproduct of all of my friends – their time, their skill, their effort – and everybody from the community donating money and toys. All I really do is put it all together and ride the bike.”
A flatbed truck and trailer – both filled to the brim – are now required to help haul presents from the staging area in New Castle to Nemours. Motorcycle Santa and his crew now collect so many gifts that every child who stays at RMHDE for the next year will be able to step inside the present room and pick one out and take it home. He also donates extra gifts to nonprofits who have contacted him about their needs.
Malin’s most recent surgery was last December, and he was on crutches until March. With months of recovering on the horizon and the prospect that he will have more surgeries in the future, he still set a new goal for himself — an Iron Man competition – 26-mile marathon, 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride — which he completed last month in Tempe, Arizona. His doctors weren’t happy about the idea, but they said he wasn’t ‘going to break anything.’
He chose the last Iron Man of the year to give himself as much time as possible to recover and prepare. “I had done a marathon before. But I had never swum or biked before. So, I had to learn all that,” he said with a chuckle.
“It was bittersweet. I had 14 hours and 51 minutes to go through everything that’s happened to me in the last eight years of my life. So, I went through everything, dug up a lot of stuff, and then I crossed the finish line. And that was like the icing on the cake to this crazy journey of life.”
Pace and Malin embarked today on a trip to Africa where they will climb Mount Kilimanjaro and spend Christmas looking over the world from the continent’s highest peak – not exactly the North Pole, but pretty darn close.