Arkansas biker festival's charity donations nearing $2 million

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FAYETTEVILLE -- Bikes, Blues & BBQ is going to have to change the tagline on its website.

It touts the rally as the world's largest charity motorcycle rally, adding that over the course of 17 years, the annual event "has realized over $1.5 million to local charities."

As of this year, that number is more like $1.75 million.

About 40 organizations received more than $270,000 thanks to this year's festival. That figure tops last year's record-setting $230,000. Last year also marked the start of the rally's 10-year, $200,000 commitment to Arkansas Children's Northwest hospital.

Executive Director Tommy Sisemore estimated 300,000 people attended this year's event, fewer than the 325,000 or so in 2016. However, heavier charitable giving in the earlier days of the festival, Wednesday and Thursday, likely made a difference. That, and running the event more efficiently probably played a role, he said.

"We just tried to figure out how to squeeze it a little bit rallywide," Sisemore said.

This year also marked the first time the Walton Arts Center partnered with the rally to sponsor a plaza for nonprofit groups at the venue's entrance. Four organizations stationed there -- Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Welcome Health, Open Avenues and Peace at Home -- received about $2,200.

The Walton Arts Center received more than $11,000. Sisemore said that's money the center hasn't gotten before from the festival.

"If that helps them bring a kid's program to town for a half a week or whatever, then we're really proud of that partnership," he said.

Some groups receive money directly, others fundraise during the event, and volunteers from across the nonprofit community get tips and a portion of beer sales. The tips are in addition to whatever an organization might receive from a grant, applications for which are submitted beforehand.

More than 150 families and individuals will get a holiday meal and a gift this year through Arkansas Support Network, based in Springdale. The organization, a licensed disabilities service provider, received more than $4,000 to put toward its holiday giving program, said Chelsea Barker, marketing manager.

The network also volunteers at the beer stand. Since 2015, the organization has received more than $7,300.

The rally's charitable reach goes beyond Washington County. Havenwood, in Bentonville, will use the nearly $3,000 it received for case management at its 15 apartments housing single women and children.

An increase in regional homelessness, particularly for youth, during the past 10 years means every little bit counts. Contributions from Bikes, Blues & BBQ serve as the largest donation the organization gets outside of its annual Journey Gala, which is coming up Feb. 24 at the Metroplex Event Center in Rogers.

Besides, slinging beer is fun, and every year there's a check waiting for what seems like no work at all, said Regan Eaton, director of development.

Participating in the festival especially helps Havenwood because most of its events take place in or near Bentonville. Having a presence in Fayetteville with thousands of people around helps get the word out, Eaton said.

"We've actually had people take a card and we've gotten a check in the mail because it's somebody from Kansas or Oklahoma or even Louisiana, and they felt compelled to give to our mission," she said. "You can't beat that kind of coverage."

Fayetteville firefighters raised about $40,000 during this year's rally. The department holds poker runs, sells T-shirts and seeks sponsorships every year. Beneficiaries run the gamut, Capt. Jimmy Vinyard said.

About half the amount raised went toward college scholarships. Thousands went to Camp Sunshine, which helps children suffering from burn injuries. Special Olympics receives a portion. So does the Cancer Support Home. Sometimes firefighters and their families throughout the state need help because of medical problems, injury or illness. The city's firefighters will use the money to help their comrades, Vinyard said.

"We try to help the community and we try to do positive things with it," he said. "That's Bikes, Blues & BBQ's goal and that's our goal."

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Stacy Ryburn
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