Learning to ride a bike can be a magical experience for a child.
Unfortunately, there are many families across Halton for which a new bicycle is simply out of reach, particularly during the expensive holiday season. In Burlington, there are plenty of people who want to fill that gap and bring a little more Christmas magic to some of the community's most vulnerable.
The Bikes For Kids program, run through the Children's Aid Foundation of Halton (CAFH), has provided over 1,500 bikes to youth in the care of the Halton Children's Aid Society since launching 18 years ago.
Austin McNeil is a former crown ward who once received a bicycle through the program. He said for many people in the care of Children's Aid, this kind of gift is more than just a toy. “A lot of kids that are coming into care aren't coming from the best of situations. And they may not be used to getting certain gifts or gifts of higher value,” said McNeil. “Being able to wake up and have a surprise of a bike for Christmas is just something kids go ecstatic for.”
On average, there are over 5,000 children and youth being supported by Children's Aid. Some of those are in foster care, others in bridge houses for homeless youth and some are in kinship arrangements with a family member.
The largest percentage of those supported are older teenagers, and the bike's being distributed are selected to accommodate that demographic's needs.
Now 27, McNeil received his bike through the program in his late teens. He said it really improved his life. “That bike made it easier to go to high school. I was that distance where it kind of sucks to walk and it's too close to take the bus. And then, on top of that, I had a co-op that I was going to, which was about an hour and a half walk. So having a bike definitely cuts down travel time,” said McNeil, who now volunteers in support of the program.
The bikes are distributed through the caregivers, so, in most cases, the children will not know the item came through Children's Aid. Organizers say one of the best parts of the program is it allows a caregiver to put a high-value item under a Christmas tree and provide their child an exciting moment when they see a brand new bike there in the morning.
Tina Blatchford, the executive director of the CAFH, said the holidays can be particularly stressful for financially challenged families. “At this time of year, they are financially struggling, even more so since the pandemic and now with inflation and everything. So to be able to hand something brand new to the child, it's such a wonderful feeling,” said Blatchford.
All bikes are provided with a helmet and a lock. The program also gives out additional active wear, like ice skates.
Bikes For Kids started on a whim. Greg Pace, the man who launched it, said years ago, he bought two bikes from Canadian Tire and wasn't sure what to do with them. He called Children's Aid, who were thrilled to receive the donation of something brand new and the program has steadily grown ever since.
Today, Children's Aid caseworkers provide the program with the quantity and sizes of bikes they need. Pace works with his network of donors and the Canadian Tire on Fairview Street in Burlington to fill the order.
Pace said that thanks to all the support he gets, they have never come up short of meeting the request. “We don't have a chance to see the kids that get the bike because of the privacy issue, which is good and bad,” said Pace. “It's bad because we don't get to see them, but it's good because when I see a kid riding a bike in the spring, I think, 'we did that' — and that's very nice,” said Pace.
For more information on the Bikes For Kids program, including how to support it, visit www.cafh.ca.