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Charlotte charity on a mission to provide thousands of free bikes to kids at Christmas

Iveth Gonzalez spun a roulette wheel and made a mini sign of the cross this week at the Salvation Army Christmas Bureau in Charlotte, N.C., and seconds later her prayer came true: A new bike for her 12-year-old son, Diego.

Gliding on two wheels over trails and streams is how Diego is happiest, Gonzalez said, so when he crashed his old bike last fall and his dad was unable to repair it, the family despaired. Money is tight this Christmas, so Gonzalez registered Diego and her 9-year-old daughter, Maria, with the Salvation Army Christmas program in the hopes that some toys — and a bike for Diego — would brighten their holiday.

Diego is one of approximately 2,000 Charlotte-area children who will receive a new bike and helmet this Christmas courtesy of the local nonprofit The Spokes Group.

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The idea for The Spokes Group was sparked by businessmen Andy Beard and Dick Dunn 24 years ago, when they had businesses in health benefits and group insurance in neighboring offices and challenged each other: Who could raise enough money to buy the most bicycles for kids in need?

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The first year, they donated 17 bikes. Fast forward to this Christmas, when in addition to the 2,000-some bikes and helmets The Spokes Group gave the Salvation Army’s Christmas program, they are also handing out 800 bikes and helmets in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area and another 250 in Charleston.

For the past 15 years, Andy Beard’s son, Will Beard, has run the program in his free time (he’s a financial adviser with Wells Fargo), along with six unpaid board members and a fleet of volunteers. Every penny donated to the program goes to buying bikes and helmets, Will Beard says, (they have an agreement with Huffy to buy bikes for $70 apiece) and the group hires a worker to spend weeks assembling bikes in the cavernous Salvation Army Christmas Bureau headquarters.

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“Our mission is simply to put underprivileged kids on bikes with the idea that every child, regardless of background or upbringing, should experience that freedom and independence that goes with riding their first bicycle,” Will Beard says.

This year, more than 10,700 children from families in financial need will receive Christmas gifts through the Salvation Army and the Charlotte Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund. Most were adopted as “angels” on angel trees in local malls and businesses. Those angels not adopted or whose gifts were not returned or returned with too few gifts (these typically number in the thousands) receive toys purchased through donations to the Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund.

The Spokes Group bikes are a huge part of the Salvation Army Christmas Bureau experience.

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As parents arrived at the Salvation Army Christmas Bureau to pick up their children’s toys this week, families not already receiving a bike from their donors were allowed to spin the roulette wheel to win a bike from The Spokes Group.

Then, a volunteer retrieved a helmet and bike in the correct size and desired color, wheeled the bike to a station where volunteers checked the brakes and tire pressure and helped the parent load their car with the bike, helmet and other toys given by donors.

The Spokes Group also gives bikes to other nonprofits, including Right Moves for Youth which focuses on keeping at-risk kids in school.

Once this Christmas has passed, The Spokes Group will have given out a total of 46,500 bikes over the years — a number that Andy Beard says he never dreamed of when he decided to start the charity.

Beard stood by the roulette wheel on the first day of toy distribution for this Christmas season. He marveled at the thought of how many kids got a taste of freedom and adventure thanks to the gift of a bike.

“If you look around this room,” Beard said, “everybody would say they remember their first bike.”

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