Hundreds Help Build Bikes For Needy Kids

Thousands of bikes will be assembled and donated to charity

Hundreds of volunteers will gather in San Jose this morning as part of an annual effort to assemble thousands of bicycles for low-income children who have a high risk of obesity.

Turning Wheels for Kids, a program of the Valley Medical Center Foundation, will offer Bike Build 2008 for more than 600 volunteers to build thousands of bikes for charities to distribute to low-income children, Turning Wheels director Sue Runsvold said.

Runsvold said she started building bikes for disadvantaged children during the holiday season as a personal effort in 2003. She bought 12 bikes after raising money about a week before Christmas.

After starting fundraising earlier the next year, Runsvold purchased 40 bikes and realized she could expand even further.

Runsvold, a nurse at Valley Medical Center, assembled a team of 10 people and her group became an official nonprofit organization under the Valley Medical Center Foundation.

"It started as good will during the holiday season," she said of the project's roots.

Turning Wheels focused on providing bikes to low-income children, but did not want to work on qualifying families.

Pairing with local charities to distribute the assembled bikes to children in need has worked well, Runsvold said. Keeping administrative costs low has also allowed Turning Wheels to spend all donations on bikes, locks and helmets, she said.

The program started as a holiday gift-giving venture, a component Runsvold said is important.

"Many years ago I would've been one of the kids who got one of these bikes," she said. "I used to worry I would have to lie or say nothing when asked what I got for Christmas. It comes full circle that way."

Runsvold said she also finds a common thread with the charities that give Turning Wheels bikes to families with one parent in prison, as her father was in prison.

The second part of the Turning Wheels story came about when Runsvold connected her job as a nurse with her charitable work.

"I am by trade a nurse and was aware of the issue of childhood obesity," she said. "The more I got involved the more I realized there is a connection there."

"Most of the parents love their children, but they don't have the means to provide for them exercise," she added. "This is a simple tool they can use for them to get outside."

Runsvold said in addition to the health dangers of childhood obesity, low self-esteem amongst obese children can lead to problems such as drug use, gang involvement and teen pregnancy.

Purchasing and assembling bikes became a year-round effort as part of the fight against childhood obesity within low-income areas, Runsvold said.

Still, the major push comes at Christmas. Of the roughly 2,400 bikes Turning Wheels will purchase, assemble and donate this year, about 2,100 will be assembled and distributed to charity organizations on Saturday.

Volunteers will gather at today at the McEnery Convention Center's South Hall, a room rented by Team San Jose and donated to Turning Wheels. After assembling the fleet of bicycles, charities will come by to retrieve the bikes.

One group of about 30 children will be allowed to handpick bicycles from the group of assembled bikes today, thanks to Variety Children's Charity of Northern California and the County of Santa Clara, variety's executive director Ellen Goodman said.

Goodman said the children are clients of the county's Department of Child Support Services.

"They are our first choice when we look for kids who are recipients," she said. "It's really the special event that brings excitement for the holidays."

The children, their siblings and families will attend helmet fitting and education before being fitted for their bikes. She said the bicycles are a wonderful way to provide exercise for disadvantaged children to exercise and stay out of trouble.

"There are so many families that are suffering more than ever, the timing of this particular event couldn't be better," Goodman said.

Despite rough economic times, Runsvold said donors and volunteers have been especially generous this year. She said Turning Wheels' annual budget is about $200,000 to purchase bikes and helmets. Providing locks for all recipients is a goal Runsvold hopes will be realized when the cost of bikes falls again after a 30 percent spike in prices this year.

"It was a challenging year but we're there," she said. "I feel very fortunate that people are stepping up."

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