Harley Riders deemed "Spirit of the Vineyard"
It has become tradition for the Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders to roar down the center isle in full view of the awaiting bidders at the Hospice of Martha's Vineyard summer soiree and auction. Although they didn't make such a spectacular entrance Friday morning, the Harley Riders were the main attraction at a breakfast award ceremony where they received the ninth annual Spirit of Martha's Vineyard Award.
The award is sponsored by Hospice and given to a selfless individual or group who "exemplifies the spirit of the Vineyard" by supporting Island non-profit organizations.
"As a coach there's a type of player who you always look to when you need a catalyst," said Lisa Stewart of the Youth Sports Organization, a group that has received many generous donations from the Harley Riders. "In my mind, that's what the Harley Riders are for the Vineyard."
Island Harley Riders accepted their "Spirit of the Vineyard" award Friday during a celebration breakfast at the Hebrew Center.
A group of 58 bike enthusiasts, the club consists of mostly Island natives with deep family roots, who donate thousands of dollars a year to Island non-profits. David "Cricket" Willoughby, president of the club, said they host events and fund-raisers all year long to raise the money they donate. Although they don't keep a running tab of how much they give away each year - because, as he said, it's not about the money - he estimated that roughly $60,000 a year is raised and donated.
"We do what we do because we enjoy what we do," Mr. Willoughby said. "As long as the club is up and functioning, you can count on our support."
The Harley Riders regularly donate to the American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Club of Martha's Vineyard, Martha's Vineyard Youth Hockey, Little League, Women's Softball League, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Red Stocking Fund, Tony Bonito Scholarship for graduates of the high school, Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, and Camp Jabberwocky.
Every August they sponsor the Run to the Rock, where bikers from all over come and ride the Island as the Harley Riders raise money for Island charities. They also sponsor Safe Haven, a week's vacation in April for children with AIDS.
The spirit award
Each year individuals or groups who have significantly contributed to the Island non-profit community are nominated for the award. Board members from Hospice, a community-supported program created in 1981 that provides free care to Islanders facing advanced illness, sort through the dozens of nominations to elect a winner. Past recipients include Jack Ware, Ron Rappaport, The Possible Dreams Auction Committees, and Cornelia "Nelly" Mendenhall, who died just as she was about to accept her award in 2002.
The criteria for selection include selflessness, the range and depth of service performed, the length of volunteer service and the effect on the quality of life of the individuals who received help and for the Island community as a whole.
Terre Young, the administrator of Hospice, said the Harley Riders were chosen this year because of their constant contribution to Island charities.
"They do so much for the Island kids, and they are a fabulous auction item," Ms. Young said of the club.
The Harley Riders have been nominated for the award once before.
Noshing on blueberry crumble and steaming cups of coffee early Friday morning in the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven, the burly tattooed men and their female club members listened to various community officials thank them for their generous donations.
Trip Barnes, the auctioneer of the annual Hospice auction, said the reason the Harley Riders are so successful in their fundraising efforts is because their quality of life on the Island is so good - and they want to make sure that doesn't change.
"They know so many people and they're all over the place, like the mafia," Mr. Barnes said, adding with a chuckle, "the good mafia."
Lorraine Clark, a long-time volunteer of the Red Stocking Fund, said they receive more donations from the Harley Riders than any other group on the Island.
Several other non-profits reported the experience of a Harley Rider breezing into their office, dropping off a generous check, and leaving without waiting for a thank you.
Mr. Willoughby, who was born and raised on the Island and now owns a building and contracting company, accepted the award on behalf of the riders. The club's name was added to a plaque listing all the past winners of the award, which is permanently hung in the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury.
"It's all about giving back to the community, and to the kids," said Mr. Willoughby, who got his first motorized bike when he was five. "The kids are our future, and they need to have the right tools and the right attitudes to carry on."
Mr. Willoughby said the Island Harley Riders are made up of both men and women who are entrenched in the culture of riding. While many fit the stereotypical look of a Harley-Davidson owner - leather, tattoos and long beards - others, he said, are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and people from many other walks of life.
"The Island is a unique place to raise money," Mr. Willoughby said. "There's a lot of work involved, but I feel so good about myself afterwards."
One of his favorite events is the Safe Haven Project, where 40 children diagnosed with HIV or AIDS are invited to spend a worry-free week on Martha's Vineyard. Every summer the club members take the kids, one by one, on motorcycle rides throughout the Island. The ear-to-ear smiles plastered across their faces when they return is enough to keep him permanently involved with the program, Mr. Willoughby said.
Michael "Panhead" Fuss, the owner of Offshore Cycle in Vineyard Haven, and his wife, Nancy, have been members of the club for over 15 years. "There is a real stick in the mud when it comes to bike riders, especially when we do our motorcycle week in August," Mr. Fuss said, referring to the regular noise complaints during the club's annual Run to the Rock, which drew approximately 575 motorcycles this year. "But it's fun to do, we have a big party, and it's a fund-raiser."
As the Harley Riders' reputation for large donations is starting to spread, Mr. Willoughby said it is often tough to satisfy all the worthy non-profit organizations on the Island. "We get lots of lots of requests, and we try to give to anyone that comes forward," he said. "We're like one big happy family, and we try to share that joy with everyone."