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Spokes Group has given away more than 33,000 bikes since 1994

EMPTYSTOCKING1212_03
JEFF SINER - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Around 2,600 bicycles line the floor at the Christmas Bureau last week. The bicycles will be given to children in the Charlotte area. Over 20 years including this year, the Spokes Group will have given out 33,359 bicycles.

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Like soldiers on parade awaiting review by a superior officer, the bikes stood in immaculate ranks: peppermint pink and sporty red for young girls and boys, sleek white and snazzy black for older kids.

Most of the Christmas Bureau was empty early last week, except for white plastic bags stuffed with gifts; the Salvation Army will distribute those to needy families in the Charlotte area. But at the back, where two dozen people gathered to honor the Spokes Group, the bikes waited shoulder to shoulder, like runners anticipating a starter’s gun.

Not everybody needs or gets one of the more than 2,500 bicycles. Kids who long for one spin a horizontal wheel; if the pointer stops on a bike – the odds are about 2 to 1 in their favor, including “spin again” sections for another try – they go home with new wheels.

“They had to ban me from spinning this thing a few years ago,” said WCNC’s Larry Sprinkle with a laugh. “I had a way of leaning into the wheel at the right time. Pretty much every kid who spun got one.”

In an ideal world, the Charlotte-based Spokes Group would put every youngster atop a Huffy and under a protective helmet. The group celebrated its 20th autumn by announcing it has given away 33,559 bicycles since 1994. (To learn more or donate, see www.thespokesgroup.com.)

“A bike provides a child with a sense of independence and ownership, sometimes for the first time,” Spokes Group president Will Beard said. “That’s important for anybody.”

He addressed a small crowd of partners, volunteers and supporters. Some had come to celebrate giving: Lois England of Carolinas HealthCare System announced a $10,000 initiative to pay for helmets.

Some came to talk about receiving. Frank Crawford of Children’s Home Society shared some of the organization’s history – around since 1902, serving 12,000 clients a year – and thanked Spokes Group for 65 donated bikes.

That’s how Spokes Group works. It’s a bridge between donors who want to set youngsters in motion and folks who can’t buy their own wheels. It deals in new bikes, referring people who want to donate used bicycles to the local organization Trips For Kids.

Andy Beard and Richard Dunn founded the Spokes Group two decades ago, after Beard attended a Salvation Army bike giveaway. “I saw a lady jumping up and down, thanking God, tears running down her cheeks,” he said. “I thought, ‘So $70 can make her that happy. Well, there are a lot of $70 (donors) around town.’ 

Beard and Dunn raised the money to buy 17 bikes that first year. Six years later, The Spokes Group gave away 2,000 bikes in 2000. It expanded to Raleigh in 2007 and Charleston (and briefly Atlanta) in 2011.

This year, it’s up to 3,561 bikes in the three Carolinas locations. Ian Coleman, who has worked with the group since 2000, has acquired near-legendary status for putting a bike together in six minutes. (In fairness, they come partially assembled in the Huffy box.)

Andy Beard said Spokes Group favors longtime partners – the Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Charlotte, Right Moves for Youth – but occasionally starts new relationships.

And does he remember his own first two-wheeler?

“Not the bike itself, but the first experience I had with it. My training wheels had just come off, I was going down the sidewalk with my father, and he let go. I was scared to death! But I liked that bike.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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