OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - By Elizabeth Vowell – email
OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) – Sam Tootle is an imposing figure. He stands at well over six feet in a burly frame, with a mane of red hair tied into a ponytail. He wears dark sunshades that hide his eyes. To top it off, he rides a mean Harley with wicked pipes.
It's no wonder, then, that 12-year-old Gabrielle Spicer was a little shy when she approached Tootle Friday afternoon. But Tootle, the president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Bike Festival, just smiled when they were introduced, because he had a special gift for her.
While it might not seem like it, this biker and shy girl have something very important in common, the Make a Wish Foundation.
"I like Make a Wish, because it helps children. I've got kids, and if it was one of my kids, I'd want to help any way I could," said Tootle.
The way Tootle could help was to organize a bike festival, and three years ago he started the Mississippi Gulf Coast Bike Festival with three goals in mind.
"First one is to bring tourism down to the coast with bikes. The second reason is to help a local charity, and that would be Make A Wish. Another is to help local businesses by bringing tourism," explained Tootle.
Over three years, the bike festival has seen anywhere from 200 to 1000 bikers. However, because the free festival relies on donations and its sponsors for funding, it wasn't until the 2010 festival that the event was able to break even on costs. The 2010 event was the first festival to raise a substantial amount for charity.
Tootle, along with sponsors, handed over a check of more than $3,000 to Make a Wish.
Spicer and 11-year-old Gloria Utterback were there to accept it. Both girls know how important that donation was. Spicer and Utterback were granted their own wishes to go to Disney World, just a few years ago.
The presentation of the check took place among motorcycles in front of Characters Lounge, a bar tucked away in Ocean Springs. While the reputation of bikers may not lend itself to charity work, Tootle says that's not so.
"Yeah, we ride on two wheels, some of us are hairier than others, but we all got big hearts and we like to do a good thing," Tootle explained. "If you have a sick kid, or a charity…the place will be loaded with bikers. They'll be spending money left and right to help that family or whatever that charity is."
The next festival will be held in April. The sponsors include Characters Lounge, Jim Beam Global, Rex Distributing, and Find it Know US.