Toy Story: Founder says ‘Twentieth run must go on’

By Dwain Hebda

In a year of upheaval, morsels of normalcy are hard to come by. But for one Conway retiree, December will bring an event 20 years in the making. And he can’t bring himself not to be there. 

The Conway Regional Toy Run is celebrating two decades of delivering toys to children in the hospital. Founder Steve “Painter” Polk encourages people to bring a toy(s) on Dec. 12 to Toad Suck Harley Davidson for lunch and to caravan to the hospital. (Photo by Donald Brazile)

“This has become my Christmas,” said Steve “Painter” Polk, founder of the Conway Regional Toy Run. “I get together with all my biker friends, make new biker friends and new regular friends on this. This is to the point that there are people that come every single year. Some people even schedule their vacation around this. It’s amazing what’s happened.” 

The 2020 Conway Regional Toy Run, slated for Dec. 12, delivers toys to children receiving treatment at Conway Regional Hospital. For 20 years, the event has brought a long line of bikers, up to 500 of them, to the hospital’s door, bearing 700 toys last year and 1,000 the year before that. 

“The program I have set up is that every child that is checked into Conway Regional Hospital gets a toy of his or her own,” Polk said. “Once they receive this toy, it’s their toy. They take it home with them.  

“It’s basically to relieve stress. A lot of these children, it’s the first time they’ve ever been in the hospital and they’re getting poked, prodded and everything else.” 

Painter—so nicknamed for his career painting aircraft for Falcon Dassault —has long had a soft spot for children with health issues.  

“I was out in California visiting my family out there and I have a nephew that has a disease that cannot be cured. I live here, he lives there, so I can’t do it for him,” he said. “Since I can’t do it for him, I decided to help kids here. A friend of mine’s child was in the hospital and so I went to the hospital here. I asked where their playroom was, what they had for the kids, movies or whatever. They said they don’t have a budget for it. So, I said, ‘Let me see what I can do.” 

Two decades ago, the inaugural run included just Polk and two couples: Vicki and Ross Scalise, and Mike and Roxanne Ford. After that, the event grew modestly until about 10 years ago when social media started to accelerate participation. That, and Polk’s tireless promotion of the annual run statewide. 

“I do a lot of traveling to promote this,” he said. “I’m on the bike a lot all over the state of Arkansas promoting this. I’ve been doing it the same way for close to 20 years and it works. We have a good crowd every year. 

“I’m the one that started this toy run, I’m the one that runs this toy run, and I make sure everything is done right.” 

Of course, rolling up to a hospital in the era of COVID-19 means some new precautionary steps. Toys will still be dropped off outside, weather permitting, and masks will be required. Other safety details are still being worked out. 

“When we roll up at the hospital, there’s a fountain that they have a big ol’ Christmas tree in,” Polk said. “If it’s not raining, we’ll stack up the toys around that Christmas tree.  

“I’ve got a couple rule changes I’ve got to go by this year, which I’m not happy about, but it’s for safety reasons. You will have to wear a mask this year. One thing is, we take a yearly picture at the hospital. If you don’t have a mask on, you can’t participate in the picture.” 

Participation is simple. Show up at Toad Suck Harley-Davidson in Conway starting at noon on Dec. 12 for a cookout and fellowship, and then head out at 2 p.m. to deliver to the hospital. All you really need is a new toy (or several), Polk said. Even a motorcycle is optional. 

“I don’t care if they’ve got a minivan. We had one girl ride a scooter one year,” he said. “Just show up.” 

Dwain Hebda
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