As a little girl, Elaine Pease loves her tricycle and can’t wait to graduate to a bicycle. Her parents work hard to get one for her, but Elaine discovers immediately that she falls off of it. She has always been a clumsy kid, but now she’s diagnosed with a balance problem in one ear. Disappointed by the news, she watches enviously as her childhood friends breeze by on their bikes.
Decades later, in 2008, she walks through the lobby of her office building and sees an “Angel Tree” set up by the Salvation Army. Dozens of wish tags from local needy kids decorate the tree. Elaine notices that there are 10 wishes for bikes – more than for any other item. Given the grim economic news at the time, she doubts those wishes would be fulfilled, but an idea immediately occurs to her.
Elaine works for the city of Burbank, California, which has an internal computer network that reaches about 1,500 employees. She posts a message on that intranet about the Angel Tree wishes. If anyone has used bikes to donate, she writes, she would try to get them refurbished for the kids. Her post receives an instantaneous outpouring of support. Not only would people donate bikes, they would also volunteer to work on restoring them to like-new condition.
From that beginning, the Bike Angels program grows into a year-round effort, fulfilling requests from various groups. It’s easy to see its many benefits: Not only do kids get their most-wanted gift, the durable product encourages exercise, reduces traffic and pollution and recycles vehicles that would otherwise be abandoned or uselessly stored. Last year, the program restores 200 bicycles. Its spring bike drive runs through April 12, and in conjunction with Earth Day it presents its first certificate of recognition on April 20 for the person or business that donates the most bicycles.
Adjacent to Los Angeles, Burbank may best be known as a home for Hollywood studios. Yet it treasures its small-town feel and strong sense of community. When Elaine visits the Bell Cottage store to browse for Brighton accessories, she meets Theresa Hanna, who owns the neighborhood gem and runs it with her daughters Lauren and Haley. Theresa often participates in local philanthropic efforts and immediately starts thinking of ways Bell Cottage can be involved with Elaine’s program.
Each holiday season, Bike Angels displays its restored bikes at a ceremony on the steps of Burbank city hall. Last year, a dentist walks by and asks Elaine about the event. He hasn’t heard of Bike Angels before. After chatting with Elaine for a few minutes, he pulls out two $100 bills and hands them to her, stunning her speechless. When she later tracks him down to thank him properly, his receptionist simply smiles knowingly. “That’s just like him,” she says. “He is always doing that.”
Funds from “angels” like him make it possible to buy supplies and replacement parts, which cost about $30 per vehicle. Then a wonderful magic happens with the volunteers who restore the bikes. “There is an old saying that ‘Volunteers are seldom paid, not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless,’” says Elaine. “Bike Angels is blessed to have dozens of ‘priceless’ volunteers who prove that saying to be oh, so true!”
Each bike is not only lovingly restored but is carefully paired with a specific kid. In one instance, an older couple arrives with a pair of matched “his and hers” Schwinns in immaculate condition. They explain that they bought the bikes new when they were married in 1969, and have enjoyed them all these years. Since they’re no longer riding the bikes, they want them to go for a good cause. Smitten by this sweet couple and their obvious affection for their bikes, the Bike Angels place the bikes with a perfect family where they can be kept together and cherished for their special history.
From an initial group of three of Elaine’s colleagues -- Kreigh Hampel, Ferris Kawar and Jorge Martinez – more than fifty volunteers now donate their time on weekends and evenings to work on bikes. It has become a fun family activity and a chance for parents to demonstrate to their kids the joy of giving back to their community. Jorge Martinez participates with all four generations of his family, from his 93-year-old mother to his 10-year-old granddaughter. Burbank Mayor Dave Golonski marvels at the “contagious” idea. “There’s more spontaneous joining than any program I’ve seen,” he says. “Inviting a friend out for a day turns into a long-term commitment.”
New volunteers quickly appreciate the enthusiastic team spirit of the program, as members celebrate each other for completing a restored bike. Volunteers bring in homemade breads and soups for “repair parties.” They particularly enjoy Leticia’s Famous Cookies, the irresistible treats baked by Elaine’s girlfriend, Leticia Morales. One volunteer, Rick Baza, is restoring a bike on his birthday when his wife and two kids arrive to surprise him. They bring a birthday cake big enough for everyone to share. Elaine, who never had kids of her own, truly creates her family through Bike Angels.
When kids come to pick up their beautiful bikes, Elaine basks in their excitement and joy at receiving these prized possessions. She thinks back to her own inability to ride. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” she says. “I believe there was a good reason for me to have this experience. Perhaps it was to inspire me to restore bikes for kids who can ride and want to ride, but whose families cannot afford the bikes.” Perhaps Bike Angels was meant to be.