When 5-year-old Joaquin Ruiz went into Breckenridge with his parents a few weeks ago, he wasn’t expecting to come home with a new bicycle.
But when they stopped by the Wish for Wheels booth, that’s exactly what happened. What’s more — Joaquin got to help build the bike himself.
“It was a total surprise that he was actually going to build it and go away with it,” said Joaquin’s mother, Melissa Ruiz. “It was a brand-new out of the package shiny sweet bike.”
With his dad’s help, Joaquin put together his new bright red bike, which will replace the pedal-less strider bike he’d been learning on. He also got a new helmet and stickers to play with.
Wish for Wheels is a Denver-based nonprofit organization that has been giving bikes to kids like Joaquin since 2004. It was founded by Brad Appel, who grew up in New York and moved to Colorado as an adult.
Bike riding has been a passion of his since he was a child. “I rode my bike all the time,” he said.
After spending some time in the workforce as an IT guy, Appel decided that he wanted to start his own nonprofit, and he wanted to center it around giving away bikes.
“I really wanted to give away bikes to kids and get them to change,” he said. Comparing his childhood with others, he felt not enough kids had access to bicycles. “I realized that less kids were riding bicycles and less kids were being outside and doing what they were supposed to be doing.”
After founding Wish for Wheels, Appel decided that the best model for the nonprofit wasn’t the donation/grants route, but connecting his charity with businesses interested in corporate philanthropy. Companies like Vail Resorts pay for the new bikes, then the employees assemble the bikes and Wish for Wheels connects with local organizations to gives the bikes to families who couldn’t afford them otherwise.
“All these companies want to give back,” he said.
In previous years, Wish for Wheels has worked with Vail Resorts and given away bikes through families connected with the Family & Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC) and Advocates for Victims of Assault.
“They called us, we set up a specific time where the people who had worked on the bike all day came over to FIRC and actually delivered the bikes and gave them to the kiddos that we’d chosen to receive them,” said Anita Overmyer, development director at FIRC. “The kids were really excited.”
The moment a bike is received is Appel’s favorite part.
“When we show up at a school and give away 100 bikes to kids, they go crazy, and that part is just amazing,” he said. “It’s just transformative. Those kids — you can see that light bulb go on. They get excited and they literally just change.”
Wish for Wheels plans to give away 50 bikes in Summit County this summer. One event, where Joaquin Ruiz got his bike, happened in July. The next giveaway is this Sunday, Aug. 9, at the Blue River Plaza in Breckenridge. It coincides with the Breck Epic mountain bike race.
Kids who qualify for a bike can stop by and get a bicycle or help make their own. The bikes are for children in kindergarten through second grade.
“We always try to target low-income kids, or kids that we know who wouldn’t normally get bikes,” Appel said. He encourages anyone with questions about qualifications to contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone is welcome to help build a bike for a kid, even just people passing by. About 19 are currently assembled and 20 more are planned for assembly this Sunday.
Plus, any kid who has received a Wish for Wheels bike is invited to participate in the kids bike parade down Breckenridge Main Street on Thursday, Aug. 20, as part of the celebration of the USA Pro Challenge stage 4 finish.
Little Joaquin has been practicing, his mom said. Soon, they will be going on bike rides together, like she used to do with her parents and siblings.
“It’s actually pretty cool to do this with my son now,” she said.
Joaquin’s story is yet another that Appel can add to his repertoire of how bikes are changing lives.
“It’s transformative for an entire family in many ways. It can also transform communities,” he said. “Some people are like, ‘Oh it’s just a bike.’ Well it’s not just a bike anymore. It’s so much more now — it’s transportation, it’s adventure, it’s exploration, excitement, it’s fun. Everybody has that connection to biking because of that.”