Published on January 11, 2017 – Kristi L. Nelson, Knoxville News Sentinel/span>
(KNOXVILLE) On the stage of Wesley House on Tuesday afternoon sat four shiny, colorful bikes.
And in the floor below, around 80 schoolchildren sat in rapt attention, waiting to hear what they could do to earn one.
Bike Elf founders Dewayne and Leigh Wilson, flanked by volunteers with the nonprofit, were there to tell them: straight As and Es for two consecutive report-card periods. If they achieve that, Leigh Wilson told the children, “In June, we’re all going to come back and you’re going to get a bicycle!”
Some of the kids gasped; some grinned. Some just stared. Then, from up front, a small hand ventured up, and a soft voice asked, “Do you get to take the bike HOME?”
For Blount County-based Bike Elf, expanding into Knox County was a perfect way to kick off its two-year anniversary. Since 2015, the 501(c)3 program has worked with the Boys and Girls Clubs in Blount County, where the Wilsons live. Wesley House is its first partner outside Blount County.
The couple, who moved to Townsend in 2014 after changes from Hurricane Katrina affected the Louisiana-based software consulting business they owned, came up with the idea to acquire and refurbish bicycles for local children after learning from a friend that the last children left on the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree that year were kids who asked for bikes.
“I spent my entire childhood on a bike,” Dewayne Wilson said. “Growing up in a working-class family, it was the best thing I ever had in my life.”
Wilson vowed to collect and renew 100 used bikes by next Christmas, but the cost of buying bikes used at garage sales and through Craigslist and then repairing them was a little more than he expected — as was the space needed to store 100 bicycles.
The Boys and Girls Clubs had a solution. The Wilsons could store the bicycles in unused space in the old Fort Craig school building, and the club could give them out as incentives to motivate children to reach certain goals.
Since then, about 100 Boys and Girls Clubs members have gotten bikes through Bike Elf, Leigh Wilson said. Meanwhile, the organization has acquired volunteers and many more bikes waiting for repair and riders.
Bike Elf will have bike drives for “gently used” children’s and adults’ bikes 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Feb. 4 and 18 at the Boys and Girls Clubs at Fort Craig, 520 S Washington St., in Maryville. The group also needs volunteers as well as donations to purchase seats, tubes, tires, grips and other repair items, and the new bike lock each child gets with a bike. Epilepsy Foundation of East Tennessee also provides new helmets for the children and fits them at the ceremonies where the children get their bikes.
A presentation to United Methodist Women in Maryville last summer led to the opportunity to expand to Wesley House, since Bike Elf works only with partner organizations, not individual families. Leigh Wilson, who has a background in corporate training and education, also developed a state-approved curriculum, “Read and Write with Bike Elf,” to keep the goal fresh on children’s minds between now and June.
Wesley House set the goals for children to earn bikes. On Tuesday, Bike Elf volunteers began measuring excited children who hoped to be able to present two “first honors” report cards in June. The posters bearing their heights — and what bikes they will receive — will hang in the hallways at Wesley House, as a reminder.
“It’s a pretty high goal to reach,” said Wesley House assistant program director Elnita Session, but she said most of the children were capable of making the grades, with some being held back by conduct. “If they’re not being pushed, they don’t work as hard.”
Session said children who don’t achieve first honors but have “shown progress” will “get rewarded another way.”
Too, they’ll have other chances, Leigh Wilson said.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” she said. “Our plan is to come back in the fall and do it again.”
“And then the next spring, and the next fall, and the next spring … “ Dewayne Wilson added.
How to help
Donate bikes: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Feb. 4 and 18, Boys and Girls Clubs, 520 S. Washington St., Maryville
More information: 865-336-2967; firstname.lastname@example.org