One by one, the bicycles were moved from Lila Vilain’s backyard, in the Village of Charlotte, to the front of her home back on Nov. 28. More than 100 bikes of all shapes and sizes were lined up as if they were ready for a trip. And, in fact, they were.
“All of these bicycles are going to children in need as part of the Salvation Army’s Christmas Angel Tree program,” said Vilain, director and co-founder of Follow the Need International, a Villages-based group that helps people both locally and around the world. “What better way for children to have a Merry Christmas than a bike under the tree?”
For the last several years, Follow the Need has worked with the Salvation Army of Lake and Sumter Counties to make Christmas wishes come true for local children. Each year, hundreds of underprivileged families sign their children up to receive three wishes from the Angel Tree, including one “big wish.”
“That big wish tends to be a bicycle,” said Tommy Taylor, a member of Follow the Need’s Board of Directors. “What’s Christmas for children without getting a new bike? Every child should get a new bike under the tree at least once, and we’re doing what we can to help out.”
Follow the Need has already donated over 560 bikes with more on the way. Some of those bikes arrived at Vilain’s home needing to be assembled.
“In some cases, it was quicker to obtain the bikes not assembled than if they were already built,” she said. “Thankfully, we had an army of ‘angels’ helping us.”
Those “angels” included fellow Follow the Need members and even people living in her neighborhood. These volunteers stepped up and assembled more than 130 bikes, ranging in size from 26-inch wheel mountain bikes for teens to balance bikes for toddlers.
“Those balance bikes can be difficult to assemble, but they are great for little ones,” Taylor said with a laugh. “We are blessed that so many people offered to help us.”
Shortly after Vilain and her team placed the bicycles in front of her home, a donation truck from the Salvation Army arrived to store them. With lots of elbow grease, a little cardboard to separate the bikes and plenty of prayer, all of the bicycles were placed on the truck without incident.
The bikes were taken to Lake Sumter Mall in Leesburg, where Follow the Need and the Salvation Army will pair them with children and their families. The parents will pick up the bicycles at the mall later this month, and the children get to see their big wish come true on Christmas morning.
“Even at the mall, we are putting together bicycles that are not assembled,” Vilain said. “It’s hard work, but we want to do it for the children.”
And during the holiday season, Follow the Need is doing much more than assembling and delivering bicycles. When there are families needing help with the basic necessities, such as food, clothing and shelter, Follow the Need is there.
“We have over a thousand pounds of food, tents for the homeless to survive the cold and the list goes on and on,” Vilain said. “But we are always looking for more.”
Senior writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or email@example.com.