Volunteers brave the heat to assemble bikes for Westmoreland County children in need

Major Scott Flanders, director of the Salvation Army location in New Kensington, knows that having a bike during the long summer days is one of the joys of growing up.

Thanks to volunteers and United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, 100 children will be well equipped to ride.

About 50 volunteers braved the scorching heat at Mammoth Park near Mt. Pleasant Thursday to assemble bikes for children in need.

Flanders, from New Kensington, said it was the first time the Salvation Army had participated in the Build-a-Bike event as a partner agency.

“I automatically knew kids in our neighborhood who could benefit from a bike, whether they were going to the store or going to one of the playgrounds,” Flanders said.

The New Kensington location will receive 11 of the bikes, and the Jeannette location will also receive 11, Flanders said. He will collect them personally.

“We are a pedestrian city, so to speak. A lot of people don’t have a car,” Flanders said.

Flanders predicts that the children who receive the bikes will be “absolutely floored”.

“Having a bike in the summer is part of being a kid…just to ride around the neighborhood,” Flanders said. “These kids are going to be thrilled when they see it.”

Ten teams of five built 10 bikes each, said Amy Franz, regional vice president for United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Also this week, volunteers from Allegheny and Butler counties came together for similar events to build a total of 300 bikes, which are then given to United Way partner agencies for distribution to children, Franz said.

“We want to make sure kids have the opportunity to be outside, exercise their bodies, stretch their wings a bit (and) have a bit more space,” Franz said.

Thursday marked the second time Build-a-Bike has taken place in Westmoreland County, and this week marks the eighth Build-a-Bike overall.

Before the teams started assembling, Franz said she asked the volunteers to reflect on their first bike and how it made them feel.

“There’s a kind of freedom that comes with owning a bike and a certain responsibility too,” Franz said. “Staying active during the summer months is very important for the development of children.”

All bikes come with a lock for the bike and a helmet for the rider, she said.

FirstEnergy Foundation consultant Andrea Bortoluzzi said West Penn Power was a major sponsor of Thursday’s event and brought 30 people to form six teams from the company’s various offices.

Bortoluzzi, of Irwin, was there last year. She said she had a blast, so she got even more people from the company to participate.

“There were people I had to turn away,” she said of the company’s signups to build the bikes. Bortoluzzi said she then got permission to bring two additional teams.

Last year, Bortoluzzi said, many engineers were on West Penn Power crews, which presented unusual obstacles.

“They thought it was going to be a competition,” Bortoluzzi said. “They were all set to win within an hour.”

A product engineer himself, Brent Kennedy of Export was one of 10 Elliot Group volunteers at Jeannette. He said the engineers on his team were hoping to relax.

“Engineers need to take a step back and not be so competitive,” Kennedy said.

This year was his first time building bikes for the event, and he said it was great to see colleagues who were out of the office due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Most of these people haven’t seen each other in two and a half years,” said Kennedy, president of Elliot’s United Way. “It’s pretty cool for us to finally get together.”

A sophomore comeback, Jennifer Witt of Latrobe said she was initially “a little taken aback” building bikes this year.

“There have been some changes in the instructions,” Witt said. “(There is a) different way to install (the tires) and the handlebars, but we got there.”

Witt is vice president and head of internal audit at S&T Bank, and she brought in a team of five to assemble the bikes.

“I think it’s really important to give back to the communities you live in,” Witt said. “You can’t see the end result with the kids getting the bike, but we know they’re going to someone who will appreciate it and have a lot of fun using it.”

Bortoluzzi said it would be “invaluable” to watch the delivery process of the bikes after assembly.

“I would love to be there when they deliver it to see their faces,” Bortoluzzi said.

Franz said one of Build-a-Bike’s goals is to help families who may be on a budget — people for whom a bike would be a “luxury expense.”

“Families are making tough choices right now,” Franz said. “I’ve heard of families saving money on gas and not sending their kids to daycare.”

Easing the “tough decision between maybe paying a bill and buying a bike,” she said she expects a lot of smiles from the new bikes.

“I think it’s a natural part of growing up, and we’re making it possible for kids who may have a bike on their wish list who didn’t think it was possible.”

Megan Swift is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Megan at 724-850-2810, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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