A Christmas tree made of 120 new bicycles that will be donated to needy children will be lit up at the American Tobacco Campus on Friday evening.
The Tree of Bikes, based on a project done in New Zealand and now the first of its kind in the United States, has transformed what was for more than a decade a modest effort to give local children bicycles for Christmas into a community-wide event to celebrate the spirit of giving.
The idea came from Blake Strayhorn, the executive director of the Durham branch of Habitat for Humanity, who, while visiting his son in New Zealand, came across a similar tree built by a charitable organization there that raises money to lift children out of poverty.
Strayhorn had recently met Stevon Green, a housekeeper at Duke University Hospital, when Green was nominated for Duke’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Caregiver Award last year. Though Green didn’t win, his story made an impression on Strayhorn.
Green has sponsored a youth basketball tournament since 2002 through his organization Happy Roots Entertainment to raise money to give away brand new bikes to children for Christmas. Strayhorn said the giveaway brought back memories of his first bike – a green Schwinn that he used to pretend was a motorcycle by sticking playing cards in the spokes – but it also made him realize how many children in Durham didn’t have that experience.
“I kind of take it for granted that I had a first bike,” Strayhorn said. “Stevon is giving bikes to kids that may not ever have had a first bike otherwise.”
Green said that bikes are a way for young children to get exercise and stay healthy in a time when the use of smart phones and video games has kept them indoors.
“I noticed when kids had these computers they weren’t going outside,” Green said. “When I was a kid we stayed outside, and with these kids now, it’s not going on.”
Before Strayhorn got involved, Green was giving away between 10 and 15 new bikes with helmets a year. Strayhorn set their initial goal for last year at 120, though they initially weren’t sure how to make that happen.
Strayhorn reached out to friends at American Tobacco, who hooked him up with Bull Durham Fabrications who agreed to build the tree, but there was a catch: the only instructions they had on how to build it was an 80-second YouTube video and a photo Strayhorn had taken of the tree in New Zealand.
“It was a massive undertaking,” said Bob Pickard with Bull Durham Fabrications. “I’ve done some crazy stuff, but nothing like this.”
Pickard said that to get his specifications for the project, he had to look at the video at least 150 times and guess the dimensions of the tree by pausing the video when people were standing next to it. The tree took three weeks of labor from Pickard and another member of his team, largely, he said, because the tree “didn’t come with a set of instructions.”
With last year’s tree at American Tobacco, they exceeded their goal, with 225 bikes raffled off in a single day to those living in the Cornwallis Road Housing Project in Durham.
“It feels fantastic,” Strayhorn said. “It’s like one of those big dreams that you don’t know how it will all come together but it did.”
This year is the second lighting of the tree out of what those involved hope will become an annual event for years to come. After Friday’s lighting ceremony, that will feature vintage Christmas carolers, the tree will remain on display until Dec. 15. About 150 bikes have been donated to the cause so far, which is enough to construct the tree, with some leftover, but short of the overall goal of 250 bikes.
The bikes will be distributed from the Bethel Family Worship Center on Dowd Street in Durham on Dec. 17.
Valerie Ward, director of marketing and events for American Tobacco, said that supporting this effort was all about being a good neighbor and that she hopes this can be an annual event for years to come.
“It teaches kids that you can go out and have some athletic time, get some fresh air and get away from the computer for a little bit,” Ward said. “It’s making sure that a child has a really lovely holiday present.”
Gavin Stone: 919-829-4520