Cookson Hills Toy Run perseveres after death of co-founder's 'soul mate'

Sheri and Bill Brown, shown at home in 2013, founded the Cookson-Hills Toy Run. Bill died in November of last year. Sheri continues the run because she knows what it means to struggle at a young age.
Sheri and Bill Brown, shown at home in 2013, founded the Cookson-Hills Toy Run. Bill died in November of last year. Sheri continues the run because she knows what it means to struggle at a young age.
Published Nov. 30, 2016

TAMPA — Out of the numerous charitable events he and his motorcycle buddies regularly take part in, Jose Ramos ranks the annual Cookson Hills Toy Run at the top of his list of favorites.

In fact, Ramos, who serves as president of the Brandon chapter of the Latin American Motorcycle Club, describes it as the most meaningful and heartwarming affair his group has played a part in for the last eight or nine years.

"It makes us feel like this is what the whole Christmas spirit of giving is all about," he said. "It also impacts some of us who grew up in poverty and now are able to give back."

This year's event runs from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301, and it marks the 23rd consecutive gathering of mainly motorcyclists from throughout the greater Tampa area who come together with gifts in their hands and compassion in their hearts.

Their sole purpose is to brighten the holiday season and put smiles on the faces of youngsters from newborns to 18-year-olds still in high school living in low-income households. It also aims to help people of all ages with special needs, including veterans.

Cookson Hills Toy Run board of directors president Sheri Brown, together with her husband, Bill, started the run in 1993 after meeting and learning about the at-risk children at the Cookson Hills Christian Home in Seffner.

Initially the event's focus was on those residents, but when the home's administrators reorganized under the umbrella of Cookson Hills Family Ministries of Florida, protecting the children's privacy became of primary importance. As a result, the run no longer serves the youngsters at the home even though it has retained the Cookson Hills name.

Today the initiative is primarily centered on children in 18 schools throughout southeastern Hillsborough County and this year's run is expected to draw more than 300 of those youngsters and family members.

"These are the kids that would probably fall through the cracks, kids who come from families where a parent has lost a job or suffers from a serious illness," said Cookson Hills Toy Run board secretary Belinda Smith, who noted that school guidance counselors help select the gift recipients.

Sheri knows firsthand what it's like to struggle at a young age. She was placed in foster care due to an unstable and abusive family environment. At 15, she left her foster family and moved out on her own into an apartment.

She later came to Florida where she met and married Bill, whom she calls her "soulmate." With him as her "ATM" and her as the run's chief coordinator, they vowed to pay forward the many blessings reaped from their lives together. Over the years, Sheri estimates they contributed about $45,000 from their own pockets toward the endeavor.

But Bill died last year from cancer, leaving Sheri with a difficult decision.

Shortly after Bill's death, she made up her mind not to continue to oversee the run. But, with the coaxing of friends and fellow bikers at his memorial service, she felt a strong calling to carry on in her husband's absence.

"I am a firm believer of supporting people in need because I've been there," Sheri said. "At this event, you touch souls and make a difference, and really, the best thing about it is that people who bring the gifts get to see exactly where they go."

She encourages people who've never been a part of the run to come out — bikers and nonbikers alike — bring a gift for a child and experience the joy it brings to everyone involved.

"It's magical, it always has been, and there are always miracles," Sheri said. "Kids get what they never dreamed they would have and once you've experienced it you'll never forget it."

Tampa lawyer Brad Souders has been both a sponsor and a participant in the toy run for several years. He's always admired the Browns for their selfless dedication to helping others in need.

"I can see Bill's face now and see him smiling down on us," Souders said. "He would probably say we're just down-home people trying to make some kids happy."

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