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'Bicycle Man' giveaway returns to Fayetteville

Ann Mathis holds a photo of her husband, community activist Moses Mathis, who was widely known as The Bicycle Man
Jay Price
/
WUNC
Ann Mathis holds a photo of her husband, community activist Moses Mathis, who was widely known as The Bicycle Man

Last year, for the first time in three decades, a giant bicycle giveaway in Fayetteville didn’t happen in time for Christmas. The pandemic forced the organizers to delay it until spring. This year, on Saturday, Dec. 18, the charity event known as "Bicycle Man" is back.

The goal is to put 1,000 kids on donated new or refurbished bikes.

For weeks, the rush has been on to get the last few hundred bikes tuned up and tested. Then they’re parked in neat rows that almost fill The Bicycle Man’s 30,000 square feet of donated warehouse space.

That last-minute crunch falls squarely on a couple of paid staff members and a host of volunteers like 14-year-old Cavarious Covington. On a recent afternoon, he was wheeling a hot pink bike a few sizes too small for him gently around the warehouse to make sure it was ready.

“I just pumped the tires up on it, now I’ve got to make sure the brakes are all right,” he said.

His father, Charles, also a volunteer, had brought him along to help and learn. The elder Covington, holding a wrench in one hand and a wheel in the other, said his reason for volunteering was simple.

“For the kids man, for the kids," he said. "I wish somebody had given me bikes when I was little."

Volunteer Cavarious Covington helps long-time Bicycle Man chief mechanic Keith Melvin put the finishing touches on a bike for the giveaway, as Cavarious’s father, Charles, works on another in the background.
Jay Price
/
WUNC
Volunteer Cavarious Covington helps long-time Bicycle Man chief mechanic Keith Melvin put the finishing touches on a bike for the giveaway, as Cavarious’s father, Charles, works on another in the background.

To be clear, Bicycle Man actually has a bicycle woman in charge.

Ann Mathis has led the non-profit Bicycle Man Community Outreach Project since 2013, when her husband, Moses, a long-time community activist, died. It all began with Moses Mathis talking to one neighborhood child, she said.

“My husband asked him, 'Did he have a bike?' He said, ‘Yes, but it's a ragged bike.’ And so my husband told him to bring it up there and they would fix it,” she said.

“That's what they did, and it started from there with all the neighborhood kids bringing bikes in my garage and them fixing 'em.”

Then people started donating bikes that needed repair. Eventually, they were fixing up and giving away hundreds a year. Now businesses, civic groups, and individual donors pitch in with hundreds of new bikes, too.

At first, they put the word out in local media before the annual events and then took names by phone, building a list to check off when kids arrived. But eventually the event got too big for that. Now school social workers in six counties decide who is most likely to need bikes and send letters home to parents before Thanksgiving.

“When we started out, we were just helping the kids in the neighborhood," Ann Mathis said. "It was not supposed to be like this, because we didn’t know what we were doing, and it just ballooned."

Before her husband died, he made her promise to keep the giveaway going. Mathis says she will as long as she’s able.

On the day of the event, a small army of volunteers will come and mask up, among them members of motorcycle clubs, fraternities, sororities and churches. McDonald’s brings free food and vendors give away school supplies and other freebies. Then the kids line up for their bikes.

Mathis said what drove her husband was similar to Charles Covington’s reason for volunteering. She said Moses remembered the visceral feeling of being a child without a bike you can call your own.

“When he was growing up, him and his brother shared a bicycle,” she said. “And he believed that every kid should have a bicycle. My husband loved children. He loved kids.”

And he had another strong belief about how the kids would choose their bikes at the giveaway.

“The parents have to go outside, and the volunteers take the kids, and take them through the bikes out there, and they choose their own bikes,” she said.

Yes, the parents can’t pick. The children get to call the shots. The only stipulation is the bike must fit well - which the volunteers ensure.

“Those kids love it,” Ann Mathis said. “And when they find a bike that they want, you cannot change their mind. That's the bike that they want. And they ride out of here with a smile on their face that's worth gold.”

A smile worth gold - and that special feeling Moses Mathis understood so well, but couldn’t have for himself: being a kid with your own bike.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.