When a dozen repaired bikes were stolen, it looked like the wheels were coming off Willmar’s Wheels4Kids bike program.
But as word of the theft traveled, people began dropping off bikes and donating cash to get the program that uses donations and volunteers to repair old bikes and give them to needy children and teens rolling again.
A grant from Willmar Kiwanis funds the program, and bike repairs are done by volunteer Jim Bode.
"The response has been overwhelming from the community," said Steve Brisendine, director of Community Education and Recreation. "It was a big response, and not from just here."
There was a letter and a $10 check from a Cokato woman who wrote that she would be praying for Bode and his work.
A man from Montevideo has offered to donate all the leftover parts from his son's old bike repair business. The money donated will also be used to purchase parts.
A family dropped off five bikes and a check for $200.
At least 80 bicycles have been donated since the theft.
The program had given away about 40 bikes this summer, and another dozen were ready to go when the theft was discovered.
The program is affiliated with the Willmar Child Guide Program, part of the Willmar Community Education and Recreation Department.
Several people have offered to help fix up the bikes, too.
"We're still looking for volunteers," added Christine Hilbert, the organizer of the program. "Right now, it's all resting on Jim; without Jim this would not be happening."
The program received more requests for bikes as it got more publicity, too, Hilbert said.
She hopes to be distributing repaired bikes and new helmets to kids soon, she said.
The theft occurred at the warming house in Willmar’s Lincoln Park. Tuesday, the bikes were moved to a larger, more secure storage area.
They were lined up according to size from tiny bikes with 10-inch tires to some that were made for very tall people. They filled most of the room.
"Most of them are repairable," Bode said as he looked at the collection.
Some may present some challenges, though. While many are fairly new, "we've got bikes from the '60s in here," he said, and parts for them may no longer be available.
Bode said he appreciates every donation. Bikes that can no longer be repaired can be used for parts, he said, and he will be happy to welcome volunteers to help with the repairs.
The program is a good way to reuse old bikes, Bode said.
"We do a great job of recycling," he said. "Otherwise, these would go a landfill."
Page 2 of 2 - As he looked at the rows of bikes around him, Bode said he didn't have a plan of attack for the repairs. "I'll just start at one end and work around," he said. "Before the snow flies, these bikes will be gone."
Brisendine said he hopes to see Wheels4Kids grow and become part of Willmar's efforts to be known as a bike friendly community. There is some interest in forming a bike club, and that could be a source for more volunteers. Scouts earning badges on bicycling would be welcome, too, they said.
The new storage area is heated, so repair work could continue throughout the winter.
Hilbert is taking a philosophical view of the stolen bikes. Kids are probably riding them, she said, though it's not the kids who would have received them originally.
The publicity around the theft opened new opportunities for the program, she said. "It's the community that has opened the doors."
Brisendine said the response "speaks to human nature and how we react," he said. "We wanted people to know there are so many good people."
To donate bicycles to the program, contact Hilbert through Community Education and Recreation at 320-231-8490 or drop them off at Jefferson Learning Center, 1234 Kandiyohi Ave. S.W. in Willmar. Donations for the program may be sent to Wheels4Kids at Jefferson Learning Center.