Carolina Conversations with Bicycle Man Community Outreach Projects’ Ann Mathis

by David Hibbard | Photography by Diana Matthews

ann-mathis-6436Going on a quarter-century now, more than 26,000 children in Cumberland County and the surrounding area have had their Christmas holidays made brighter by the compassion and generosity of one man. Moses Mathis earned the moniker “The Bicycle Man” after his small project to fix up old bicycles for neighborhood children blossomed into something much bigger. Every December, at-risk children line up outside a Fayetteville warehouse to receive not just a bicycle, but the unbridled joy of getting a gift at Christmas time—and the pride of having something they can call their own.

Although “The Bicycle Man” died in 2013, his wife, Ann, is fulfilling the promise she made to her husband of more than 45 years to make sure needy children continue to receive bicycles. We visited with Ann to find out more about the program, her husband’s love of children and ways the community can get involved.

ONC: Your husband never set out to be “The Bicycle Man.” Tell us how this all got started.
AM: My husband always loved children, so that’s no surprise to anyone. He was sitting in the garage one afternoon right after Christmas, and this little boy came by. Moses asked him, ‘Did you get anything for Christmas?’ He said he did, but he didn’t get what he really wanted, and that was a bicycle. So Moses asked him if he had one, and the boy said he had an old, raggedy bicycle. So Moses said, ‘Bring it up, and I’ll fix it.’ He did, and after that, little children just started coming up to our house.
We started out just as a community outreach project, and it grew from there. Moses and I and another couple started a community watch program, all of that was happening in the same year (1990), and my husband retired from Black & Decker. The community watch program was a response to trying to get rid of drugs in our neighborhood. Moses loved kids, so he started doing things to get kids in the neighborhood involved. We’d have kids over to the house and bring in different people to teach them about work ethic and other skills, how to plant flowers and vegetables and make them grow, things like that. As a result, more and more kids found out about Moses fixing bicycles and started bringing bikes to him. That’s when the bicycle thing took off.
Gilbert Baez, who works with WRAL-TV now, he and Moses became friends, and he was the one who gave Moses the name “The Bicycle Man.” It started with him.

How did the program grow from the first few bikes?
The first year, we gathered enough bicycles to give away about 75 bikes. The second year, we added a computer to it—the kids had to write an essay, and the winner would receive a computer in addition to a bike. All of this was taking place in my home; I was still working, but Moses was retired.

Talk about the time some bicycles were stolen from you. In a strange way, it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened…
I had never seen my husband cry or show any kind of emotion until we had almost all our bikes stolen from us (in 1993 or 1994). That was the first time, because that was his thing, making the kids happy. That year, the year those bikes were stolen, was the year we went national. CNN picked up the story. People from all over the place started sending us bikes. I remember (Cumberland County Sheriff) Moose Butler worked with us. They had a truck and went to Charlotte to pick up a bunch of bikes for us. That year, we gave away 2,000 bicycles, so the person who stole those bikes did not win!
Things really took off. Those first few years, from October to December, we wound up spending our own money on this. We didn’t know what we were getting into. Moses just thought he was helping the community. We didn’t know anything about taxes and all that, but we always managed to have bicycles in December.

How do you identify and ultimately select the children who will receive bicycles each Christmas?
In order for a child to get a bike, they have be in kindergarten through middle school, and they have to go through the social worker at that child’s school. Not the teachers, not the principal, but the social worker. We try to make sure we stick with at-risk children, the homeless children, the children who really need help. The social workers send letters home to the parents, and the parents have to return that letter back to the social worker. The social worker confirms with us that a child has a need, and the child receives a certificate. On the day we do the bike giveaway (this year, it will be Dec. 17), the child and parents have to bring that certificate with them.
We do ask for a $5 donation on that day from the parent, to help us get started for the following year. We have to have some funds to help us get started. Instead of them going to Walmart and spending $50 for a bike, they come here for $5. The child has to be present. The parents bring them in with identification, check them in along with their $5 and then the kids pick out their bike.
The only thing the parents do is bring the child and register them, and then our volunteers take it from there. The kids get helmets. They get a whole lot of stuff, not just a bicycle. The only thing we ask is that the parents bring the child, and allow that child to pick out their own bikes. The parents wait outside the warehouse while the kids pick out their bikes. That was Moses’ thing: it’s all about the children, not the parents. They come in and they have volunteers who will set them up, help size the child to a bike to make sure they can ride it.
You mention volunteers. How many do you have?
During the year, volunteers are scarce. That’s what I need. I have all these bikes in this warehouse that need to be repaired, and I need volunteers all year to help fix them. We get plenty of volunteers to help on the actual day of the giveaway event in December, but we need more all year long.

ann-mathis-6319Tell us about the bikes that are in your warehouse at any given time. Where do they come from?
All these bikes have been donated to us. Walmart donates a lot of bicycles to us, along with the private sector. We have one school in Holly Springs, a day care, they donated 200 brand new bicycles last year. We have some of the departments at Fort Bragg that donate bikes to us as well. Some of the national fraternal organizations donate, and some of the motorcycle clubs have also donated to us. Most of our donations come from Walmart. They donate all year. Sometimes we have bike drives, where people can come and donate bikes at a certain location at a certain time. We’ve had those in Wake Forest, Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville.

You also get bikes donated by individuals, and sometimes, those bikes need work before they can be given to a child. How important are bicycle parts to your operation?
Parts are essential. Pedals, kickstands, training wheels, seats—that’s where our money goes, is to buy parts. I work with Hawley’s Bicycle World, that’s who we get our parts from, and they sell those to us at cost, and that’s very helpful to us. I remember Mark Taylor (a Hawley’s staff member), he used to come to my house the night before the giveaway when we first started, and he and Moses would be out in the garage working on bicycles to give away the next morning. They have been one of my best supporters, other than Walmart.

How has the generosity of the local community, in addition to those from elsewhere, helped your program over the years?
One example is all the different warehouses we’ve had through the years to store and repair our bikes. This location is the 10th warehouse, and hopefully, this is going to become a permanent location. I don’t have to pay anything except the utility bills here, and every place we’ve ever been has been donated, like this one.

What’s been most effective in spreading the word about this project?
Media. The media has played a great, big role. Newspapers, television, they’ve played a major role in everything that I do. Sometimes, people are amazed at the contacts I have in the media. If I partner with another group on some other project, they’ll say, “Ann, can you get the media there?” And I call the media and they show up. I’ve become friends with so many people at the television stations and radio stations. So it’s all these people that know our good work.

You’re known for giving bicycles away in December, but is that the only time of year?
No. We work with different agencies that work with the homeless or homeless veterans, people who are trying to get on their feet and don’t have transportation. We are active all year, both receiving bikes and also giving them away.

How are the funds that people and organizations donate to you used?
We use that money to buy parts and keep our doors open. Every December, people are able to see where their money goes. Last year, we gave away 1,300 bicycles, and about 1,200 of those were during the Christmas holidays.

What does it mean to you to do something that helps children, but that you also know perpetuates what your husband loved to do?
To me, it’s helping somebody else. I’ve always helped people, and I wanted to continue that as long as possible. It means a lot to see these kids get something for Christmas. If they don’t get anything else, they’ve got a bicycle. It means a lot. My husband’s main thing was that it was all about the kids. As long as the kids are happy, it’s fine.

 

The Bicycle Man project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, accepts donations of used bicycles at its warehouse, located at 1800 Wynfare Drive in Fayetteville, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To donate, volunteer or lend your support, visit www.thebicycleman.bike or call 910-424-3083.