Brad Appel grew up in Westchester, N.Y., “riding my bicycle everywhere.” It wasn’t until he became a parent, however, that he realized a lot of kids weren’t doing the same.
And not just because their parents were driving them everywhere. In many cases the family simply hasn’t the means to purchase a bike.
Appel, 48, is the founder and executive director of Wish for Wheels, a Greenwood Village-based nonprofit that in 2017, with the help of Walmart, Huffy Corp. and 125 other corporate partners, was able to give new, 20-inch Huffy Rock It bicycles with coaster brakes and ProRider helmets to 6,000 second-graders attending Title 1 schools. A Title 1 school is one where at least 40 percent of the students are from low-income families.
“Sure, it was a different place and time,” Appel says of his childhood, but the benefits that come with bicycle riding remain the same today as they did back then.
It was that belief that caused Appel to found Wish for Wheels in 2004 and become its paid executive director a decade later, after careers in the home building and information technology industries. Wish for Wheels’ first giveaway occurred in 2005, with 68 recipients. To date, it has awarded 50,000 bikes and helmets and expanded its reach to some 15 states.
“We’ll build anywhere in the United States,” Appel says. Anadarko, for example, hosted a bike-build for youngsters in Midland, Texas, while in Florida employees of the Boston-based Suffolk Construction built bikes for members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lee County.
Corporate giants like Google and Twitter have organized build teams, as have members of hometown law firms, owners of mom-and-pop businesses and auto dealerships. Each team “pays to play,” at the rate of $100 (the cost of a bike and helmet) per member.
Some Wish for Wheels partners use the bike-builds sessions as a team-building exercise; others use them as a way to instill philanthropic principles.
Audi Denver, for example, funds a bike for every Audi sold and Wish for Wheels invites the purchaser to participate in the presentation of his or her bike. The 160 adults who belong to the Wish for Wheels Cycling Club pay $150 or $300 in yearly dues with proceeds going toward the purchase of bikes and helmets.
Each build team is free to select the recipient school. Education First’s Denver office built 250 bikes for students at a Title 1 school in Lakewood, and added backpacks filled with school supplies to the donation. Fifth graders at Denver Jewish Day School, Graland Country Day School and Summit View Elementary “adopt” a Title 1 school and stage fundraising events during the school year to buy the bikes that they then build and help distribute.
The presentations are memorable, Appel says. The kids are “Totally blown away; they go nuts. We’re giving a brand-new something to kids who don’t get anything new.”
The presenters meet the children on the playground, weather permitting, toward the end of the school day. “We set up a bike rodeo where we give safety instruction and then let ’em ride.”
In August Wish for Wheels, in partnership with the Denver Public Schools and the Colorado Department of Education, launched T2, an ambitious initiative that will, over the next five years, provide a new bike and helmet to every incoming second-grader in the DPS’ 78 Title 1 schools, or approximately 25,000 kids.
Then, there will be an evaluation of how riding a bike impacts the students’ physical and mental health and whether having a bicycle to ride to and from school affects attendance.
Already, Appel says, there’s evidence that giving a child a bike is making a positive difference in the family dynamics. “You give a kid a bike and then a couple of months later you find that the whole family has one and they’re spending time together riding. Moms tell us that mornings aren’t a crazy rush when their child has a bike to ride to school. They can spend more time on things like preparing and eating a healthy breakfast.”
Imagine, he adds, “If an expenditure of just $100 per child can increase attendance rates and make a positive difference in their physical and mental health. We want nothing more than to grow healthy, community-oriented kids.”
Such as Paul, who belonged to a youth center in Sun Valley, Denver’s poorest neighborhood, when he received a bike from Wish for Wheels. Today he’s part of the Front Rangers Cycling Club, a nonprofit working with the Denver Police Department to introduce inner-city youngsters to bicycle riding, and recently completed the week-long, 480-mile Ride the Rockies.
“Our big moonshot,” Appel says, is to reach all of Colorado’s Title 1 schools. Beyond that … nationwide.”
While Wish for Wheels is Colorado’s only organization providing new bicycles and helmets to second graders in Title 1 schools, several other nonprofits in the Denver metro area and Boulder give recycled bikes to underserved populations of every age. They include:
Riding one’s bike to school was not an option when Joanne Davidson was a kid—it took 45 minutes to get there by bus—but on weekends and summer/winter breaks there was nothing she liked more than to ride her Schwinn at breakneck speeds around her rural Northern California neighborhood.
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