A lifelong tradition has become a breath of fresh air to needy children of Lee and Collier counties. Skip Riffle, founder of the Bikes for Tykes non-profit charity, set up shop 30 years ago, donating new and refurbished bicycles to children in need all around the area, and hasn't stopped since.
"It all started when I was a child, 8 years old, in Mt. Gillion, Ohio," he said. "It was a small town of about 2,000 people everybody knew everybody's business. If someone was having a hard time, everyone knew. At Thanksgiving, my father and I would pick two families and however many kids that was, go down to the junk yard, buy however many bikes we needed (my father was a fender and body man), sand them down, fix them up, and on Christmas Eve night, around 2 a.m., we'd get up, get in his truck and go to their homes to put the bikes on their front doorsteps with a note that said, 'Merry Christmas, Santa Claus.' I was sworn to secrecy never to say anything and many of those kids went to the same school as me."
Skip and his father carried on the bicycle-giving tradition together for years. But, as young Skip became a young teenager, seeing girls in a whole new light and getting his driver's license, the holiday ritual came to a halt.
Bikes for Tykes volunteers help reassemble a refurbished bicycle, one of the thousands donated to local children in need. The 501-c3 charity is seeking more volunteers, to give even more children a better holiday.
"Decades flew by, and one day, 30 years ago, my friend and I were in McDonald's and saw an Angel Tree, with kids' names and what they wanted for Christmas. There was a little boy named Josh, age 6, who wanted a bicycle for Christmas. We fixed up a bike, brought it into McDonald's, and they loved it so much, they asked if we could make more. That year, we refurbished 27 bikes for needy kids, 127 the next year, 200 the year after that, and 300 to 350 every year after that. We've refurbished and donated about 18,000 bikes to date."
The Bikes for Tykes program has been a well-oiled bicycle-refurbishing-and-donating machine for 30 years, basing all of the hard work out of Skip's Naples workshop. But, as times got tougher, so have funds and a lack of volunteers.
"Over the last few years, no funds have been available, and we're about to run out of what we have in savings. Volunteers who were to come help when returning to Florida for season haven't, and we're hurting," he said. "I'm in a desperate need for help to raise funds, volunteers, and anyone interested in beginning another chapter in Lee and Collier counties."
Going for a Guinness record
In an effort to raise awareness, funds and reach a world record, Skip and his Bikes for Tykes foundation, in conjunction with the YMCA of Collier County and the Children's Network, will host an all-night fund-raiser at Germain Arena, Friday, Feb. 17.
"We will be building a mile of bikes, lined up tire to tire, to make a run at the Guinness Book of World Records," he said. "We'll be starting at 4 p.m. and going all night long. After the fund-raiser, we'll be giving all of those bikes away each with a helmet, a backpack and a lock."
Skip said the local YMCA has about 600 children, and the Children's Network has about 800. So, that day, the charity plans to donate 1,400 bikes to local kids.
"That way, every deserving, underprivileged child around can have a bike," he said.
Fort Myers Beach benefit for Bikes for Tykes
Coming up even sooner than the Germain benefit, the Yucatan Beach Stand, 250 Old San Carlos Blvd., will be hosting its fourth annual Snowbird Festival, Sunday, Dec. 4, with all proceeds and bike donations going to the Bikes for Tykes Foundation.
"It's a great local charity, and we're going to do all we can to collect more bicycles for their Germain Arena benefit in February," said Yucatan general manager Stephen DeAngelis.
f ever in the area, Skip welcomes anyone to stop by his workshop (5950 Cope Lane, Naples, FL 34112) to lend a helping hand to restoring a bicycle or two.
"Feel free to stop by the shop anytime," he said. "It's a great opportunity for a father and son or a father and daughter to come and work as a team. It's also great for high school and college kids looking for community service hours."
If interested in making a contribution either monetarily or by donating a used bicycle or if interested in volunteering or starting another chapter of the organization, feel free to call Skip anytime at 450-3366 or visit BikesForTykes.org. As the charity is a 501c-3 non-profit organization, Skip can write up or email a tax-deductible receipt for all donations.
As for drop-off locations, any Naples bike shop will take bicycle donations for the charity, as well as the Beach Bulletin office, 19260 San Carlos Blvd., Fort Myers Beach. Visit BikesForTykes.org for more information.