'Elves' spread holiday joy with special deliveries to Akron youth
It was a quiet Sunday morning in December when a parade of fire trucks, police cars and semi-trailers suddenly appeared in a small Akron neighborhood blasting their horns.
Children and parents alike came running out of their houses, shouting with excitement when they saw the source of the commotion: Dozens of volunteers were unloading eight enormous trucks filled to the brim with brand new bicycles. Christmas had come a few days early.
Each year, Elves & More of Northeast Ohio chooses a struggling neighborhood in Greater Akron to surprise with 500 new bicycles, just in time for the holidays.
"We deliver hope and joy at Christmastime to kids who may not otherwise have it," said Tim House, who co-founded Elves & More after being inspired by a similar program in Houston, Texas.
Leaders at the nonprofit consult with local police departments and drive through potential delivery sites – often counting the number of boarded-up houses – before deciding which neighborhood will receive bikes that year. Past recipients have included children in the North Hill, Lane Field and Summit Lake neighborhoods.
"We try to find an area in need that we have enough bikes to fill," House said. "We don't want to leave any kid behind."
This year, in celebration of its 10th anniversary, Elves & More plans to deliver a record 1,500 bicycles to three top-secret neighborhoods in Akron. These special deliveries are possible thanks in part to a grant from the Millennium Fund.
Prior to the big day, hundreds of volunteers gather to assemble the bikes, which are purchased at cost from Huffy Corp. in Centerville, Ohio. Older kids receive BMX and beach cruiser-style bicycles, while younger kids get Radio Flyer tricycles or bikes with training wheels. All of the bicycles are assembled in a single morning in what has become a holiday tradition for many of the volunteers.
"We have people lined up waiting to help us build bikes," House said. "One year, a guy came up to me and said, 'I want to thank you for giving me a reason to celebrate Christmas again.'"
Many of the volunteers are involved in the process from beginning to end: They donate, build and then personally deliver their bicycles to children in need, many times in lieu of holding their own holiday celebration. It's a tradition that brings deep satisfaction, said House, one that is outweighed only by the joy of the children they serve.
"When the kids see the fire engines and hear the horns, they start running," House said. "They're super excited."
But the biggest thanks often comes from the children's parents and grandparents, who are overwhelmed by the generosity of strangers.
"We'll have a grandma who is raising her grandchildren come up sobbing and tell us how thankful she is because she couldn't afford Christmas this year," House said. "Those are the moments that keep us coming back."