Some call Dave Wood the “bike whisperer.” Kids have asked if he was an “angel.” He considers  himself “a regular old volunteer.” But around Christmastime — when he helps 5,000 kids get a bike — it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him Santa Claus.

Dave, senior R&D engineer with Nilfisk, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, is a big fan of bicycling and a member of the G-Force bicycle club. Another club member heard about a family in need of bicycles and sent an email to members of the club asking for bike donations.

“It was December 2008. We fixed up the donated bikes in a cold, unheated greenhouse and gave away over 200 bikes that year,” says Dave. Free Bikes for Kids (FB4K) was born.

A bike mechanic in high school and college, Dave was the only guy in the bicycle club with that kind of experience.
 
“In the first five years of FB4K’s existence, I was the operations manager, meaning that I was chief bottle washer, mechanic and floor sweeper,” says Dave. “I would use vacation time to volunteer. I was on FB4K’s board of directors for six years, and now I’m just a regular old volunteer. I enjoy being there and helping others learn how to adjust brakes and fix bicycles.”

Annually, on Bike Donation Day in early October, there are 40 bicycle drop-off points, which collect more than 5,000 bikes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, including one at Nilfisk for employee bike donations. Hundreds of volunteers unload the donated bikes from trucks in a central location, which for the past few years has been at the Mall of America.

“FB4K has no brick and mortar (location),” says Dave. “We use 80,000 square feet of space to work on the 5,000 bicycles. The Mall of America donates space that is not yet built out, and is the perfect place to fix bikes.”

Gifting 5,000 bikes requires almost half that many volunteers. More than 2,000 people spend two months cleaning, refurbishing and quality-checking the bikes to be ready in December. But not all of the bikes can be fixed.

“Some bikes become ‘organ donors’ and just the parts are salvaged,” says Dave. “Other bikes are sent in a container to Africa, where components are used to build wash machines, community water pumps, other bikes and art projects. Nothing goes to waste.”

The two-day Bike Give-Away in early December is a big event. The bicycles are given to kids identified by a network of 100 community organizations, churches and schools. The children arrive with their parents or sponsors and they pick out their own bicycles, as well as a helmet.

“Our volunteers help the kids find the right size bike, adjust the bike and the handlebars to fit the child, and do one last quality check,” says Dave.

The FB4K experience is an emotional one every year. Dave’s most memorable moment involved an 11-year-old boy with special needs.
 
“The young man had tried in the past to ride a bike, but had trouble doing it,” says Dave. “I remembered that an adult-sized tricycle had been donated to FB4K and brought it out to him. It was a perfect match.”

As Dave loaded the treasure into the family van, the boy’s mom thanked him and said, “This is a gift I could never afford, and can never repay, but I will never forget.”

Gretchen Roufs, a 25-year janitorial supply industry veteran, owns a marketing and public relations company in San Antonio. To suggest someone you think should be featured in “Freetime,” contact her at Gretchen@GretchenRoufs.com.