“Let kids just be kids” is a common expression for kids to have unstructured time to play, be curious, and to discover the world around them.
Athletes Helping Athletes (AHA) gives the expression new meaning for many kids. AHA is the foundation arm of Road Runner Sports and provides adaptive bikes free to children up to age 18 with permanent physical disabilities. Since its founding in 2000, AHA has given 1,222 bikes (and counting) to kids around the country—letting them go fast for the first time; essentially, letting them just be kids.
I recently caught up with Erin Campbell, AHA’s director and assistant to Mike Gotfredson, CEO of Road Runner Sports, to learn more about the program. One of the first things she shared with me gets to the heart of the foundation’s purpose:
“Nothing these kids and families do is easy. AHA is designed to make it easier for them. When children get adaptive bikes from us they can go out and play with other kids; without one, they’re sitting on the sidelines watching their siblings and friends out there riding and having fun.”
Erin told me the story of 9-year-old Xavier who is AHA’s 1,115th kid to receive a custom-built bike. Xavier suffered a spinal cord injury when he was just over a year old after being shot multiple times and lost the ability to move his body from the waist down. While in the hospital recovering, he caught the attention of a loving nurse who eventually adopted him. On the day Xavier’s bike was scheduled to arrive, his mom told him they were getting a new stove and asked for help opening the big box. Of course, it wasn’t a stove, and now his seven (also adopted) brothers and sisters have a hard time keeping up with him on his bike.
Adaptive bikes are not cheap and not covered by insurance. Bikes can cost between $2,500-$4,500—often too pricey for most families, so that’s where AHA comes in to provide life-changing experiences for kids. The custom-built bikes are provided free to families; all that’s required is for parents to do their due diligence and let AHA know the best type for their child. The application also asks for a letter about the kid’s athletic goals, a letter (or drawing depending on age) from the child explaining why they want the bike and how it will enhance their life. The child must be able to self-propel their bike without assistance (full application details). Applications are accepted and bikes are given 365 days a year.
AHA board member, Fred Liebel, has been with the foundation from the beginning and makes sure every bike ordered is the right bike for each child. “We couldn’t sustain this program without him. He is a champion of the program and as a disabled athlete himself, is very familiar with these types of bikes and understands the difference they can make in a child’s life,” said Erin.
Once AHA receives and approves an application, a custom-built bike arrives on the doorstep within two weeks to one month (the record is less than a week!); in rare cases it can take as long as three months depending on the vendor. AHA gifts about 80-100 bikes a year, which adds up to miles and miles of smiles for kids.
While the bikes help maintain kids’ health, wellbeing, and overall physical fitness, they’re really doing so much more. The bikes are changing the perception of how kids view themselves, as one recent bike recipient shared, “I’m not disabled, I’m differently-abled.”
“Every day these kids amaze me. They are such bright spirits. I’m a very lucky, athletic person and I don’t know what I would do or if I would handle my life with the same grace and amazing outlook as these kids. Every day I’m humbled. I have the best job in the world,” said Erin.
Road Runner Sports has 40 stores nationwide and all money raised for AHA comes from donations – 99% of the funds raised go back to the program to buy bikes for kids. Employees talking to customers is critical to getting the message out about AHA; you never know what customers you can help. AHA gets an added boost from many partners who are dedicated to supporting and building the handcycle program throughout the United States.
As I hung up the phone with Erin, I couldn’t get Xavier off my mind. He has an indelible spirit and is an inspiration for us all; though he represents just one of the many stories whose life was forever changed by a bike.
More people need to know about AHA – every kid who wants a bike should have one. Please help spread the word about this important program by doing one or more of the following:
- Sharing this blog post with your family, friends, and coworkers
- Posting it to social media with the hashtag #athleteshelpingathletes
- Sending it to your local news stations
- Donating any amount to AHA – every dollar counts
The work of AHA is close to my heart and takes me back to my time in New York City when I was a volunteer for Achilles International, one of AHA’s partner organizations. I ran with runners who were blind, in wheelchairs, or who just needed a little extra help, and I’ll forever cherish my time with these inspiring runners. Even though it has been over 20 years, I still remember my regular runners: Justin, Gladstone, and Leo – thanks, guys, for the great memories.
Everyone should have the opportunity to be an athlete and thanks to programs like AHA, kids everywhere can.