They all remember the thrill of their first bicycles — the pure joy and freedom it represented.
“I was so thrilled to get it; I remember going no hands,” said Dale Hartje, smiling as he recalled his father’s warning: “No hands, no teeth.”
Dick Cleveland’s first boyhood bike was a Coast to Coast Rocket.
“I still have a picture of mine. I cherish that,” chimed in Lowell Kutches.
Sixty years after they felt the exhilaration of owning their first bicycles, this group of retired Anoka County men is helping a new generation understand that rush. They’re part of Bikes4Kids — the Robert & Wilma Burbach Bike Foundation.
The all-volunteer Anoka County nonprofit was formed in 2011. The organization collects broken-down bicycles often destined for the dump, fixes them up and then gives them to people who otherwise cannot afford them. They’ve partnered with other local nonprofits, including the YMCA, local Christmas charities and Hope 4 Youth center for homeless youth, to distribute the bicycles.
“A bike means, ‘I get to do something on my own.’ It gives them some freedom,” said Kutches, the charity’s president.
Most of the Bikes4Kids volunteers come from either the Coon Rapids Kiwanis Club or the Faith Lutheran Church FROGS (Faith Retired Old Guys). Church member Robert Burbach planted the seed for the charity years ago. An avid cyclist, Burbach used to collect old bikes, disassemble them and ship them overseas, so the group named the nonprofit to honor him.
“To see the kids get their bikes, it’s unbelievable,” said Byron Dokken, who oversees bike procurement for the charity.
Barns as workshops
The group of about 20 men works out of two red barns behind Al Sannerud’s Ham Lake home.
Sannerud, a retired accountant, is the executive director of the nonprofit. He gets a little teary eyed as he talks about the charity’s mission. The rehabbed bicycles, along with new helmets and safety manuals, go to needy kids and teens. They also go to young adults, some from foster care and some from the juvenile justice system, who are trying to establish themselves. A bicycle can serve as their transportation to work and school.
“Giving them a bike gives them something that is theirs. We are helping them establish they are a good part of society,” Sannerud said.
At Sannerud’s farm, the horse barn is filled with old bikes that need to be tuned up, repaired and detailed. It also contains a workshop.
Eyes light up
On a recent Tuesday morning, a small group of men is cleaning and lubing bicycles. Volunteers work at their own level and speed.
Norm Dahl is tinkering with a red, 16-inch boy’s bike with a horn attached to the handlebars.
“I am amazed at how well they come out,” said Dahl, a retired store manager for Sherwin Williams. “It’s great to see the kids’ eyes light up.”
Volunteers store the refurbished bicycles in the adjacent cow barn. Nearly 100 shiny bikes ranging from tricycles to adult road bikes fill the main floor and the hayloft. The charity distributes bicycles throughout the year but gives out the most at Christmas time. In 2012, the group gave away more than 200 bicycles. This year, it easily will eclipse that number, organizers say.
The owner of Trailhead Cycling & Fitness in Champlin helps the group get hold of old bikes, sells them parts at wholesale prices and has taught the volunteers some basics of bike repair.
“They are retired gentlemen. Instead of sitting back, they are getting together and doing amazing things for people in need. It’s just the most inspiring thing,” said Trailhead owner Larry Saylor.
Saylor said customers often bring in old bikes in need of repair. Sometimes, when they learn a tune-up and repairs will cost nearly as much as a new bicycle, they leave the bike at the shop. Saylor said he feels good passing them on to Bikes4Kids.
“A lot of this stuff was probably going into the Dumpster, and these guys are working on it,” Saylor said.
Troy Wolens, owner of Pioneer Cycle in Blaine, also helps the charity collect donations and buy discounted parts.
“They do a lot of wonderful things for this community. No doubt, the people that are running it are really dedicated, sweet folks,” Wolens said.
And they do quality work, he said.
“The bikes they’re giving away are completely rehabbed. They are really nice bikes,” Wolens said.
Staff at the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids helps distribute some of the bicycles to younger kids at summer camp.
A potential lifeline
They also give bicycles to teens and young adults.
“For some of these young people, especially the homeless, it’s really been a lifeline,” said Casey Schleisman, YMCA community program director. “A lot of young people don’t have a mode of transportation.”
It isn’t just utilitarian, she said.
“A bike is more than a material item. It helps a young person develop confidence as they learn to ride it and self-esteem,” Schleisman said.