The Wheels for Kids program celebrated its 17th annual event at Howard Middle School where Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the Orlando Police Department, the Orlando Fire Department, Santa Claus and several sponsors gave away nearly 90 bicycles to children between the ages of 5 and 15.
Wheels for Kids was initially founded by Sheehan in 2002 as a program to give children in public housing within Reeves Terrace backpacks and school supplies. However, by the second event the Reeves Terrace students no longer had a bus system to take them to school.
Sheehan said it was important to invest in reliable transportation for these children in order to help them be successful. Since Wheels for Kids began donating bicycles, Sheehan said Howard Middle School has risen significantly in test scores. She estimates Wheels for Kids has donated over 1,000 bicycles, and that none of those students have been academically disciplined since being a recipient of the program.
“They’re good kids,” Sheehan said. “People have this perception of people that live in public housing that’s really negative. But when you invest in children, you can make such a huge difference.”
Dozens of children stood on the sidewalk in front of Howard Middle School to watch a parade of firetrucks and Orlando Police Department mounted patrols deliver the bicycles. Sheehan read a roster of names for each student to get their bicycle from Santa Claus and then pick up a helmet from a group of volunteers.
For mother Juana Younger-Lopez, Wheels for Kids could not have come at a better time.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my god, this is so awesome!’ when I saw that letter,” Younger-Lopez said. “Now she can play with it and ride it around the neighborhood.”
The bicycles given by Wheels for Kids are all donated by various sponsors and then assembled by the Orlando Fire Department. Sheehan credits much of the success of Wheels for Kids to their partners’ generosity and concern for local students.
Gary DeJidas, the chairman and CEO of GAI Consultants, has sponsored Wheels for Kids with his company since their first event. DeJidas said community outreach is important for both the volunteers and students.
“One of our core values is to give back to the community and this is how we do it,” DeJidas said. “Commissioner Sheehan said really nice things to the kids about why they should be appreciative and pay it forward as well.”
Even when the event was over and it started raining, Sheehan and other volunteers continued to help children onto their bicycles and send them off with a “Merry Christmas.” Sheehan said Wheels for Kids will continue to do its part to combat poverty and problems with public housing by helping children succeed in school.
“The way we do that is we make sure they have food, school supplies and computers,” Sheehan said. “And we make sure they have bicycles to ride to school.”