Christmas Appeal helps the needy get wheels

ROCHESTER — "Where are you from?" Dan Lill inquired of the doorbell ringer on a mid-November Saturday morning.

"Africa."

"And you walked all the way here from there?" Lill said good-naturedly.

That quip drew a grin from the young man, who had arrived at the warehouse at 226 Hudson Ave. by foot but — like hundreds of people who seek out R Community Bikes — was hoping to leave with a bicycle. He had certainly come to the right place: Inside the 6,000-square-foot facility were rows upon rows of bikes, with volunteers toiling away on several of them.

"There are 500 to 600 bikes waiting here to be refurbished," Lill noted.

And to think this all started with an offer to fix a single flat tire.

R Community Bikes, founded by Lill and Bill D’Anza, is an initiative through which bicycles are collected, repaired and redistributed to city residents in need. Repair work is done at the warehouse four mornings per week, and giveaways are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. all year long.

The organization, which received Christmas Appeal monies in 2008, has given away more than 4,000 bikes since its inception. As of late 2009, it was on track to more than double its total of 654 from last year.

Lill observed that the poor economy is making transportation costs more challenging for city residents, some of who are homeless. Though R Community Bikes issues some bicycles for recreation, particularly children’s bikes, Lill said about 80 percent of what the ministry gives away go to adults who need bikes to get to work, school and substance-abuse-recovery programs. Thus, demand is high even in the cold months.

"We get a lot of thank yous that are very sincere, from people who truly depend on the bikes for transportation," D’Anza said.

R Community Bikes operates mainly out of the Hudson Avenue facility and does repairs at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality on South Avenue during the warmer months. Lill, a parishioner of St. Monica in Rochester, said the organization is trying to expand to the city’s west side, where no comparable services exist.

Recipients cut across many ethnic boundaries — Anglo, African-American, Hispanic — and also include refugees from such countries as Cuba, the Ukraine, Iran, Sudan, Bhutan, Kenya, Nepal, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia and Thailand. Adults are required to bring a letter of referral from a social-services agency, church or employer so as to reduce the odds of a bike being sold or exchanged for illicit purposes. Those who don’t have a letter can earn their bike by working at the warehouse.

This grassroots operation began innocently enough in 2001 when D’Anza, a parishioner of Holy Name of Jesus in Greece, offered to fix a staff member’s bike while helping serve lunch at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality. The next week a patron asked D’Anza to fix a flat, and before long he was regularly offering free repairs in the parking lot along with Lill, a fellow St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality volunteer. From there, D’Anza and Lill saw their ministry grow through church-bulletin advertisements and word of mouth.

The initiative is bolstered by area businesses, churches and community groups, who make donations and help arrange bike pickups and giveaways. Income is derived through grants as well as sales of the occasional collector’s-item bike or part that turns up. A volunteer list of some 200 people includes several mechanics with professional experience, yet Lill said new volunteers — especially city residents — are always welcomed.

"The volunteers are absolutely wonderful," said Lill, a retired teacher from Rochester School for the Deaf.

D’Anza added that the community also can assist by bringing their unused bikes to R Community Bikes for a tax-deductible donation. Although they may not all get resurrected, D’Anza said many bikes are more salvageable than they appear.

"I see people putting bikes in the trash when all they need is to put air in the tires, literally. Maybe they need the handlebars adjusted, or all they need is a new tube," D’Anza said.

D’Anza, a retired administrator from Rochester Psychiatric Center who is a longtime avid biker, said he’s glad he can apply his experience to a noble cause.

"I certainly get a lot more out of what I’m doing than what I’m providing. People, they’re genuinely grateful most of the time. And it’s a lot of fun," he remarked.

Meanwhile, Lill marveled as he looked around the warehouse at so many bikes given so willingly, with so many people willing to help repair them.

"I stand here and say, ‘Where did this come from?’ We know we have been blessed," he said.

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