Ron Rigdon stands amid all the toys collected at Santa’s Toy Run, an annual December event that NASA Southeast holds at Road Atlanta. In lieu of a paying a gate fee, NASA members bring a toy or a gift card valued at $20 or more to donate to local charities.

The generosity of NASA members is what makes NASA more than just a racing organization. No matter which region you visit, talk of the NASA “family” is sure to come up. And NASA Southeast really lives up to the “family” part for the past 12 years.

The first weekend of every December, the NASA Southeast Region puts on the Santa’s Toy Run event for needy children in the area. Santa’s Toy Run was the brainchild of former Honda Challenge series leader Ron Rigdon, who suggested to NASA Southeast Regional Director Jim Pantas that they step up their efforts to help children for Christmas. The region used to charge $10 for gate fee, and then donate the proceeds to local charities. Now rather than paying the usual gate fee, NASA Southeast racers bring a toy or gift card valued at $20 or more to be donated to children who otherwise would not have anything for Christmas.

Charities that benefit from Santa’s Toy Run are Fulton and Gwinnett Partnership Against Domestic Violence, Gateway Domestic Violence Center, Haven House, which runs domestic violence shelters. Likewise, A Friends House and Gwinnett Children’s Shelter, which are group foster homes are part of the outreach. Also included is the VFW, National Home for Children and Camp Boggy Creek. All of these are deserving recipients, and all are 501 C3 nonprofit organizations. NASA Southeast has been putting on the event since 2007 and their motto has always been, “Bring Miles of Smiles.”

“Thirteen years ago, we got an opportunity to do a December event at Road Atlanta. We were hesitant at first because around here, nobody really drives in December because of the holidays and the weather and stuff,” said NASA Southeast Regional Director Jim Pantas. “So we decided to make it a total charity event where all you had to do when you got to the track, for a gate fee, we would donate a toy or gift card valued at $20 or more, and we would give the toys to kids in the domestic violence shelters and foster homes.”

Rigdon is quick to point out that many NASA racers, crews, volunteers, and fans give over and above the minimum requirement. One racing team has donated $2,500 every year for the last 10 years. Another always brings a bicycle every year. Yet another donates 30 $20 gift cards. In fact, one NASA Southeast member donated 10 cases of toys this year. There are also many racers, crew, fans and volunteers who also make additional donations so NASA Southeast can provide more than 80 women and older teens with a $20 gift card each. Most of them would prefer to remain anonymous and are happy to be a part of such a great event like Santa’s Toy Run. All of the proceeds go to the charities. None is used to administer the program.

Many NASA members bring donations over and above the minimum. All of the proceeds and donations go to local women’s and children’s shelters, among other charities.

“These charities really count on us now because, you know, they know that they don’t have to go out and solicit for toys and that takes away from their other areas like clothing, food. For some organizations we are their only source for toys at Christmas,” Rigdon said. “A lot of these women leave their situation with just the clothes on their back, them and the kids. But you know, they had the courage to leave that situation and seek professional help. Many of the kids in group foster homes need our help, especially at Christmas.”

Jim and Julie Pantas of NASA Southeast, Ron Rigdon and all the NASA members who contribute to Santa’s Toy Run have truly made a difference in hundreds of children’s lives for 12 consecutive years at Christmas time.

Some of the toys also are used for the birthday and new-arrival closet, because many of the come with just the clothes on their back. Rigdon’s message to the women and children this year was, “Have courage. We care!”

One of Rigdon’s favorite stories from Santa’s Toy Run events this year came when he had delivered five bags of toys and a monetary donation to the Haven House. Right around the corner from Haven House is A Friend’s House, a group foster home for children. When Rigdon went to A Friend’s House, he noticed he forgot to deliver one of the bags to Haven House, so he figured he’d just give it to A Friend’s House. There was only one thing in the bag, a large stuffed unicorn.

“I went in and talked to Kay. She’s the director and she said, ‘Ron, you’ll never believe it. Come back to my office. I want to show you something,’” Ridgon said. “And I went back there and sat down, and she went through her desk. She pulled out this little handwritten note in pencil. One of the little 14-year-old girls that had just come to the shelter had slipped her a note that said all she wanted for Christmas was a giant stuffed unicorn.”

For that one 14-year-old girl, Santa’s Toy Run had delivered a Christmas miracle, and extended the warmth of the NASA family just a little more.

Image courtesy of Ron Rigdon

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