Santa biker and his buddies bring Christmas cheer to woman living in a tent with her dog

Ben Thielen of Rockford donned a Santa suit when he rode his motorcycle to Lowden State Park on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023. for a fundraiser for Sarah Wright. Wright has been camping at state parks for several months as she searches for rental property that will allow pets. Thielen is a member of the  Kinsman Redeemers, a Rockford motorcycle club.

OREGON – Santa was just one of the guys Saturday when he rumbled into Lowden State Park on his motorcycle on a damp and foggy afternoon to help make the Christmas season a bit brighter for one woman.

In full Santa garb, Ben Thielen of Rockford was one of 25 motorcyclists who took part in a fundraiser for Sarah Wright at the Ogle County Brewery and then climbed back on their bikes to visit the 69-year-old at her home – a tent at a campsite in the state park.

With temperatures in the 40s and thick fog enveloping the already soggy Rock River Valley, Thielen didn’t need Rudolph’s bright red nose to guide him or Santa’s girth to stay warm – seeing the smile on Wright’s face and those of his big-hearted biker buddies was all he needed.

“Actually, I was a little too warm,” Thielen said as he held his Santa-hat-covered helmet. “I had started sweating after we stopped.”

Thielen, who rides with Kinsman Redeemers, was one of the bikers who made the trek to Wright’s campsite to say hello and show their support.

Wright has been living in a tent with her dog, Luna, at Lowden since October. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall she alternated between the area’s state parks while trying to find rental property that will allow her to keep her pets.

She previously lived in Polo before the apartment building she was living in was cited by the city as unfit for human occupancy and has since been slated for demolition.

Because of her dog Luna and her three cats, Wright has been unable to find rental housing that allows tenants to have all her pets. Her cats are staying with Kathy Wragg of Polo, while Wright and Luna stay at Lowden.

“All I have are my animals, and I am not going to give them up. Stuff [doesn’t] matter to me,” Wright said in an earlier interview.

Kevin Struse, also of Rockford and who rides with Kinsman, gave Wright I big biker bear hug when he climbed off his Harley and walked up to her campsite. “He called and we showed up,” he said.

That “he” was Brad Parkinson, 59, of Oregon, also a motorcyclist, but more importantly the man who has made it his mission to help Wright.

Less than two weeks ago, Parkinson saw Wright’s tent when he was walking his dogs at the state park. Moved by her scant campsite, he left a note on her tent.

“I left a little note on your tent that said ‘if you need help reach out to me’,” Parkinson recalled as he and Wright greeted the bikers. “And she called me the next day. That was on Dec. 13 – just 10 days ago. So we came together in 10 days. Christmas is in two days so the 12 days of Christmas may have a new meaning now.”

“Yep, it does for me,” said Wright.

Charlie Kitzmiller and Sherry Crumbaker of Oregon have also been instrumental in helping Wright. They regularly stop by with freshly laundered clothes for Wright and make sure she’s OK.

Parkinson thanked all the bikers for their support and making the drive to Oregon.

“You all did a good thing today. I can’t thank you enough,” Parkinson said. “I just didn’t want to let this go.”

Tony Duran, of Franklin Grove, helped organize the bike ride portion of the fundraiser and coordinated law enforcement officers from Oregon and Byron and the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department to help close off traffic when the bikers left the Ogle County Brewery in Oregon, and traveled 10 miles north on state Route 2 to Byron, before heading back south nine miles on River Road to Lowden.

“I explained what was going on and they all said ‘count us in’, ” Duran said. “They knew the best places to block traffic and they got everything organized for a perfect flow.”

Duran said he when he read about Wright, he knew he had to help. “Country folks come together to help people in need,” Duran said.

Gaylon McKenna, of Rock Falls, spoke for Green River Riders Association, who had six riders at the event. He said Saturday’s weather conditions were not a factor.

“We usually ride about 10 mph faster, but because of our police escort we rode about 10 mph slower,” he said grinning. “This is what we do. We help people in the community by riding.”

Parkinson said fundraising efforts are continuing with cash donations being accepted at the Oregon NAPA Auto Parts store, where he works as a driver. Wright does not keep cash at her campsite.

“We’re going to continue to take donations at NAPA,” said Parkinson. “We want to make sure she gets a place to live. We’re going to make this happen.”

All the attention has been an adjustment for Wright.

“For months I was living in solitude, just camping and seeing campground hosts and park rangers who were all great. Then with these first three days, with all the attention, I was really stressed. I thought to myself ‘I never want to be famous,’” she said chuckling.

“Before I didn’t have friends and now I’ve got some of the nicest ladies as friends,” she said as she hugged Crumbaker. “Everyone has been so nice and have been sending me stuff with caramels and those are my favorite.”

On Monday, Parkinson transferred ownership of his 1999 Dodge van to Wright, giving her a vehicle to call her own. The van is one step in helping her get back on her feet and just one stepping stone en route to finding her a new, permanent residence, he said.

Parkinson paid for the title transfer and plates and six months insurance so as he said, “she’d be mobile and legal and ready to go”.

He has also pledged his 1975, 13-foot camper to use – if need be.

A native of Virginia, Wright moved to Illinois in 2011 to be near her father. In 1998, she visited the Polo area and White Pines State Park with her dad.

Her path to living in a tent at Lowden included being flooded from her rental home near Fulton, living out of a storage unit, staying in an unheated garage loft in the Rock Falls/Sterling area (offered by a friend at no charge) and a homeless shelter.

During those months, she continued to seek a place for herself and her pets, and she has applied for housing through the Ogle County Housing Authority.

She started camping at White Pines State Park and Lowden in April, alternating between the two, adhering to the parks’ 14-night consecutive stay limit.

Without a vehicle, Wright has relied on the kindness of others and one Polo man in particular, Mark McGinnis, who moved her and her belongings to and from each park every two weeks during the summer.

Inside her dome tent, Wright has cots, a heater and a small cooking area. The tent is covered in blue tarps to help keep it warm and dry. She keeps water in jugs, collected from one of the park’s public drinking faucets, and has access to electricity at the campsite. She said she has plenty of camping experience.

Wright worked in law enforcement while in Virginia and spent a few years in security for a retail store in Virginia Beach in addition to various other jobs, she said. Social Security is now her sole source of income.

She also used to own and ride a motorcycle and still has a motorcycle driver’s license.

“Well, I definitely miss riding for one thing,” quipped Wright as the last biker left the campground. “But I am overwhelmed by everyone from all the communities who have showed up to help me. I have met so many nice people. I am so thankful.”

Earleen Hinton

Earleen Hinton

Earleen creates content and oversees production of 8 community weeklies. She has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.