Pedal power: Pittsburgh Build-A-Bike constructs 150 bikes for local kids

The Great Hall at Heinz Field echoed with kids’ joyful screams and laughter.

“It honestly is just like Christmas morning times 150 kids,” says Michelle Messer, Volunteer Manager with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “It’s just so exciting to see them so excited. You can’t help feeling that excitement yourself.”

Those kids built 150 bicycles under the guidance of 200 volunteers during United Way’s fourth annual Build-A-Bike challenge. By the end of the afternoon, each of the bikes went home with the kids who built them. The kids received helmets and bike locks, too.

“It was amazing,” says Juan Perez from the Boys and Girls Club in Carnegie. “To be able to pull off building so many of those bikes with all the kids there was astonishing.

“They’re like trying to herd cats,” he says, laughing.

Employees from Williams participated in the Build-A-Bike challenge. Photo by Ted Wiegand

Build-A-Bike is an innovative effort that combines 25 teams of corporate volunteers and young professionals with deserving kids – ages 8 to 10 – from five area agencies. This year’s kids came from the Boys and Girls Club, Big Sisters of the Laurel Region, South Hills Interfaith Movement, Best of the Batch, and YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh.

The idea behind the project is to encourage healthy lifestyles through staying active. For some kids, it was the first time they rode a bike.

Once the bikes have undergone a safety inspection, kids pedal through an obstacle course of cones where they learn to ride — from starting and braking to taking a bend. Bicycle police officers teach safety and ensure proper helmet fitting.

“I remember the first bike I ever got, and I remember learning how to ride a bike,” Perez says. “This is an experience they are going to remember for the rest of their lives.”

Beyond going home with a bike, the kids get so much out of the day.

“Anytime kids can have a positive interaction with adults who care is a good thing,” Perez says. “Being able to see people care about you …  and are willing to do something for you goes a long way with these kids.”

Local kids from underserved communities received bikes to promote healthy lifestyles at United Way’s annual Build-a-Bike event. Photo by Ted Wiegand

Working with the corporate groups teaches the kids teamwork, confidence, and hands-on skills.

“We always give instructions to the volunteers to make sure they’re letting the kids help build the bikes,” Messer says. “The kids are working alongside them, the volunteers are taking them through the directions, helping them pick out the right tools, and working with them to help put the bike together, which is even more exciting for them. It’s a great learning opportunity.”

The experience of walking through Heinz Field, touring the Steelers locker room, and meeting linebacker Arthur Moats is a thrill, too.

“To see the Steelers come and participate in stuff like this is cool,” Perez says. The kids look up to players, “but to be able to see this is a person and to hear they had their first bike, and they went through some of the same experiences, it really resonates with the kids.”

The grownup volunteers also benefit, making this program one of the most popular volunteer-driven events for United Way. Build-A-Bike has a tangible outcome and instant feedback, as opposed to just working on a project that benefits kids in the abstract.

“They get the satisfaction of building a bike with a child that needs a caring adult in their life, to work one-on-one and see firsthand that excitement and joy,” Messer says. “That’s the best volunteering there is because you get to witness firsthand the work you’re doing.”