A few minutes before Erika Rodriguez’s eyes filled with tears of gratitude, the parking lot at the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware was silent, except for a faint buzz from the charity’s impressive Christmas light display.
But with the sudden roar of a motorcycle, an instant Christmas celebration appeared, complete with a sleigh full of presents for all, and visits from Frosty the Snowman, The Grinch and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
"After having a really horrible experience, this is the best Christmas we've had and it means a lot," Rodriguez says. Her 9-year-old son is recovering from a traumatic leg injury he suffered two months ago in a Millsboro car accident.
This particular Christmas miracle is courtesy of Rocco Malin, known as Motorcycle Santa this time of year.
The 30-year-old bartender, who works at Wilmington's Trolley Square Oyster House and Dewey Beach's Northbeach during the summer, is a former U.S Marine perhaps best-known for his wacky ideas and off-centered personality.
Yes, that was him in Newark once walking to a liquor store while wearing a green "Borat"-style thong. And that's him on his newest Instagram page called Daddy Toots, where you can find Malin giggling after tooting his horn at unsuspecting drivers waiting at red lights.
But Malin's goofy alter-ego, Motorcycle Santa, is also his best, and his best-known.
For four years, Malin has been organizing fundraising and toy drives for underprivileged kids, personally delivering the gifts and toys while dressed as Santa Claus, riding his 2003 Kawasaki Vulcan Nomad motorcycle while pulling a sleigh on wheels.
Motorcycle Santa's first year ended with Malin aimlessly riding around on his bike and offering toys to random children and families he came across in Wilmington.
The homegrown, DIY event has blossomed. Last week, Malin and 15 friends delivered their biggest surprise yet: an avalanche of toys for families at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children and the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware, both in Rockland.
And on top of that, more than $11,400 was raised through donations, which likely will be donated to the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware to pay the annual cost for two rooms there. Families are asked to pay $15 a night to stay, but no families are turned away if they cannot pay. A meeting to determine donation details is scheduled.
Last year, Motorcycle Santa donated $5,000 to sponsor a single room. Donations are still being accepted via the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe at www.motorcyclesanta.org.)
Ronald McDonald House of Delaware Development Director Barbara Loeslein remembers the first time Motorcycle Santa and his festive crew of merrymakers pulled up to families huddled at the charity's entrance.
No one knew what to expect.
And they were floored.
"He called and said he was Motorcycle Santa bringing toys for all the kids and I said OK, but I could not believe what it really was," Loeslein says. "I really was shocked — it was something else."
When it came time prepare for his fourth year as Motorcycle Santa, Malin wasn't sure he was going to be able to personally pull off the delivery.
He had surgery — his 10th — scheduled for a few days after he was to pass out toys and donations while wearing his custom-made Santa outfit.
Malin has avascular necrosis, a disease in which bone tissue dies due to interruption of blood supply. He was headed to Cleveland to have stem cell therapy, hoping to avoid having a hip replacement.
But Malin decided he couldn't let down those in need. Plus, he didn't want to take a year off from his philanthropic project, for which he has even bigger plans.
"You can't beat that right there," Malin said last week at the Ronald McDonald House after a girl started to cry, overwhelmed by the surprise dose of generosity. "That's what it's all about. And I've been in plenty of hospitals. I know how it can be an intimidating, stressful and draining."
It's his own ailment that led to Motorcycle Santa to reach beyond Delaware's border this year for the first time.
Malin met Stephanie Tippett in an online support group for people with avascular necrosis, also called osteonecrosis. Tippett also has the illness, which causes some to need bone grafts and joint replacements.
In recent weeks, Malin spotted a post she wrote mentioning how she was struggling financially and didn't have the money to provide a proper holiday for her two children, ages 17 and 12. She was asking people for good coping mechanisms.
While her husband, Matt, works full-time, she has not been able to because of the bone ailment, which required a pair of shoulder replacements and a hip replacement. She also suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Malin messaged her, mentioned Motorcycle Santa and offered to help.
Tippett says she initially felt uncomfortable about the offer — "We had a talk about pride," she says — but in the end, she accepted help when Malin promised the funds didn't come out of his own pocket.
One of Malin's final chores before flying to Cleveland last weekend was to ship a large box to North Carolina, filled with clothes and toys for the Tippett family, gifts from complete strangers in The First State.
"It was so empty under our tree because all of our Christmas money is going to the $50 every time I go to physical therapy and being able to walk again," Tippett says. "It's really rough to be a parent in this position. You just want to do what you can for your kids.
"I was in an emotional hole when I posted that and this is nothing short of Christmas magic."
While Tippett was almost rendered speechless by the generosity, Malin is used to people who are not quite sure what to make of him.
Even Matt Place, Malin's childhood friend who played The Grinch for this year's deliveries, struggles to describe the adventurous drink-slinger with a man-bun.
Place knows all the stories, like the times Malin dressed in short shorts for work. Or earlier this year when he traveled to Nicaragua to (successfully) track down a stone-sculpting hermit artist named Alberto Gutierrez on a whim.
"To describe him, pick all the adjectives that mean positive and joyful, make that one word and that's it. It's not a facade. He just enjoys life," says Place, also 30 and from Wilmington. "People ask me what's going on in that head of his and I tell them I stopped asking that question 15 years ago."
After making his first deliveries this year, it didn't take long for Place to understand why Malin transforms into Motorcycle Santa. The feeling one gets from helping others during the holidays is hard to describe, he says.
"I just met these two little girls at Nemours and I have to say it was very hard to stay in The Grinch character without getting choked up," Place says. "All we want to do is bring that smile out and help them forget about whatever else is going on, except the Christmas spirit and happiness."
He adds: "I don't think I'll ever be able to not do this. The Grinch's heart has grown 10 times today."
Malin created Motorcycle Santa in 2015. It was unseasonably warm and he went out for a ride, which he normally didn't do when the weather is colder.
On that ride, the idea of a motorcycle Santa first bubbled up.
"I have a lot of random ideas. I don't follow them all, but this one stuck," says Malin, who was voted "Most Random" during his high school years at Wilmington's St. Elizabeth School, where he graduated.
He bought a Santa suit and recruited friend Jay Knowles to be his elf, buying him an elf suit. Malin then bought $200 worth of toys, driving around with Knowles and giving away the presents he pulled out of a big, red bag.
For the second year, they added a sleigh on wheels, pulled behind the motorcycle. And in each year since, the Motorcycle Santa experience has grown larger. This year, trucks pulled trailers with an entire nativity scene in one, and more gifts in another.
Since launching it, Malin estimates that he has spent more than $2,000 of his own money on Motorcycle Santa's costumes and lights, with friends pitching in to build the Christmas caravan.
With his wacky idea grown into a large-scale fundraising effort, Malin has created an official non-profit for Motorcycle Santa and even had a sleek, custom red synthetic leather Santa suit made for himself.
No longer are the donations all from friends, family and customers. They are coming in from everywhere, including one $1,200 donation from a perfect stranger. The name that donor listed was "Peter Billingsley," the actor who played Ralphie in "A Christmas Story."
David Hayes, bar manager of Trolley Square Oyster House, watched last week as Malin hosted his annual toy drive at the bar, receiving a surprise $2,500 check from restaurant owners Big Fish Restaurant Group and its Big Fish Charitable Foundation.
It didn't take long for the Oyster House staff to rally around Malin's idea when he started working there last year. It wasn't just the idea, but the funny guy behind it.
Hayes thinks Rocco is a genius.
“The way he looks at life with his humor is different than a lot of people, but it’s just so endearing,” Hayes says. “He’s a special piece of our puzzle, so we’re all happy to support him.”