Wake County

December 2, 2012

Wheeler: A leap of faith delivers bikes for kids

If donors don’t come up with money for bikes already purchased, Ashley Wilson and Jenn Nowalk will. Their charity is just one of scores you can find on our Holiday Guide to Giving.

Hopping onto my bicycle and pedaling away from home, legs pumping, wind whistling, stringy hair flying out behind me, I always tingled with an exhilaration fed by a small flame of freedom.

That red, white and blue 10-speed with the curled handlebars often carried me away from heartache or toward a playground where imagination reigned.

Ashley Wilson’s pink Huffy with the banana seat routinely found itself on its side at the foot of a sand pile in her Concord neighborhood. Kids would climb the pile and congregate there, telling their secrets, trying out personas, laughing about nothing.

“I cannot imagine growing up without a bike,” says Wilson, co-founder of the Triangle Spokes Group, a charity that provides new bicycles to children in need. “So many memories I have. We’ve gotten away from a kid riding off on a bike and enjoying the joys of simple play.”

Wilson’s charity is just one of scores you can find on our Holiday Guide to Giving at nando.com/holidaygiving. Click “search” to see the entire list. (See details, Page 17A.)

“There’s nothing like waking up on Christmas morning to a brand-new, shiny bike,” Wilson says. “Every kid at some time asks for a bike. Who doesn’t remember learning how to ride a two-wheeler? Getting your training wheels off?”

It was the father of Wilson’s brother-in-law who started the first Spokes group in Charlotte in 1994. That chapter will give away 2,000 bikes this year. In addition to Wilson’s group, founded in 2007, there now are branches in Atlanta and Charleston, S.C., too.

This year, the Triangle Spokes Group will bless 500 children with bikes through the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program. With more than 8,500 children signed up for help, though, that means only a small fraction will get bikes.

“We want to be able to get to a place where every family gets a bike,” Wilson says. “We’d love to be at 2,500 next year. We have manpower for assembly. We have the storage. As much as we can get donation and support for, we can handle.”

For almost two decades, Huffy has generously been selling the bikes – in 20-inch and 16-inch sizes and in girls’ and boys’ styles – to the Spokes groups for the same price: $70, and that includes helmets.

The trickiest part is that Wilson and her Triangle Spokes Group co-founder, Jenn Nowalk, have to decide on a number and order the bikes – and pay half the cost – in August. At this point, the nonprofit still owes $17,500 for this year’s bikes and needs money to get ahead for next year’s order.

Two major fundraisers each year pay a large part of the bill, but many donations come from corporations and from word of mouth. The charity, run completely by volunteers, has no administrative costs; 100 percent of every donation goes to buying bikes.

“Whatever we don’t raise, we’ll have to pay for,” Wilson says, explaining that “we” means her and Nowalk. “It’s a huge leap of faith every year.”

Five years ago, Wilson was looking for a way to give back to her Triangle community. She had graduated from Meredith College with a degree in education but had given up teaching after only two years because she couldn’t afford to live on the pay a sixth-grade science and math teacher brings in.

She spent several years in the real estate business in Raleigh before opening her own office in 2009.

“When I quit teaching, I struggled with the reasons I wasn’t teaching anymore,” says Wilson, 32. “I had to figure out an outlet where I can run my business and do what I was called to do career-wise but also have my giving-back outlet. This gives me back the kids.”

And what her bicycles give the kids is a priceless chance to make lifelong memories – and to ride free of the constraints of poverty for at least a little while.

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