There’s hardly a kid out there who doesn’t remember his or her first bike. Maybe it had tassels, a basket or a horn. Or maybe they just remember where it took them—to their first best friend’s house, around the neighborhood or to the corner store for a snack. Everyone remembers—except for the kids who never get a bike.
Walker Wilson, the founder of the nonprofit onbikes Pensacola, has led the organization’s mission to provide every underprivileged and foster child with a brand-new bike, helmet and lock to call their own so they, too, can make memories they won’t ever forget.
“The best part about being a kid is being outside and being able to play with your friends, and having a bike is an avenue to do that,” Wilson said. “It instills that sense of responsibility. You gotta figure out how to safely get somewhere. You’ve got something that’s yours that you have to make sure doesn’t get torn up so you can continue to use it.”
onbikes Pensacola raises money through sponsorships and registration for its annual Winter Wonder Ride—a relaxed five-mile slow ride in downtown Pensacola. The money goes toward Huffy bikes they purchase unassembled in bulk, put together with the community at family-friendly bike build events and distribute to children in need through various local nonprofits.
Wilson started onbikes Pensacola based on an onbikes event his college friends created. They invited him to their winter bike ride the first week he lived in Tampa.
“I went to it, and I was like, ‘This is really cool. This is a bunch of young people doing something good for their community. They’re giving back, having fun, and it’s Christmas time,’” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘This is really awesome. I want to do it when I get home.’”
When he moved back to Pensacola in February of 2016, it’s exactly what he did. He joined Pensacola Young Professionals to recruit likeminded people to help.
“We started in the summer of 2016 with a goal to give away 100 bikes,” Wilson said. “In our first year, we gave away 350 bikes. On Nov. 23 at our bike build, we’ll hit our 2,000 bikes mark.”
Young people don’t need permission to make a difference, Wilson said. onbikes shows how people in their 20s and 30s can take ownership of something that helps their community.
Wilson fondly remembers distributing bikes at the Ronald McDonald House one year.
“We didn’t tell them, and we had the families come out and hand out bikes together,” Wilson said. “They were so excited they were about to get a bike. They were riding around the house. They went outside. It was awesome. We even had a three- or four-year-old that had one of the bikes with no pedals, and he was just kickin’ around ridin’ behind his older sister. It was cool to see their smiling faces and excitement of having a bike.”
The organization also creates more than just childhood memories.
“For a lot of these older kids—15-, 16-, 17-, even 18-year-olds— that receive bikes through our program, it’s a ride for them to their first job,” Wilson said. “It’s something we didn’t even think we were fulfilling a need of when we started this whole thing, so that was cool to see that come out of this.”
Local politician Lumon May also recognizes another benefit of the program.
“When we look at pollution, emissions and trying to reduce traffic, onbikes has more than just an impact on giving a child a gift at Christmas,” May said. “It has an impact on how they create their socialization, how the culture around them is created and how they create their lifestyle.”
May loved riding his blue Huffy bike as a child, he said.
“I grew up in an era where you played sports outside, went to practice and many times, we’d ride our bikes all over town,” May said. “I still ride bikes to this day. I think it’s a great way of exercise. We really should encourage children to ride bikes and do more physical activity … It’s one of those things you can do until you’re old. It’s a universal activity.”
May first became involved with onbikes through his work with Southern Youth Sports Association. It gives away bikes for good behavior and Christmas, he said.
“Many times, we struggle to find funding and people that donate, and onbikes has stepped up to the plate,” May said. “I’m actually there when we hand them out. A couple of kids at Lincoln Park School didn’t have a bike. To deliver them a bike a day before Christmas is awesome.”
Parents appreciate it, too. He remembers once distributing bikes at a banquet at the Pensacola Bay Center.
“Parents would get so excited,” May said. “They were able to stretch dollars and buy things like clothes and food because someone else provided the bike. It’s always an awesome feeling to be able to give a bike.”
WHAT: An event for onbikes Pensacola volunteers to assemble bikes. No experience is necessary, and tools are provided.
WHEN: There are two shifts—9-11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 23
WHERE: Pensacola Bay Center, 201 E. Gregory St., Pensacola
onbikes Fourth Annual Winter Wonder Ride
WHAT: Five-mile bike ride through downtown Pensacola followed by post-ride celebration featuring food and beverage vendors, games and live music from Soul Station.
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7
COST: $30-45 (Registration includes a T-shirt, swag bag and drink tickets)