Volunteer turns two wheels into big smiles

Turning Wheels (Download Image) Lab engineer Larry McMichael sits on the board of TurningWheels for Kids’ Tri-Valley Chapter. TurningWheels is one of the many nonprofits supported by LLNL’s annual Helping Others More Effectively (HOME) campaign. Photo by Julie Russell/LLNL

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory employees who volunteer for various non-profit agencies. This is just a sampling.

Larry McMichael’s mission is to get kids off the couch by steering them away from the indoor world of television, computers and video games that dominate many of their lives. He’s doing it with two wheels.

For the last three years, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory engineer has been volunteering his time with the Tri-Valley Chapter of the nonprofit TurningWheels for Kids (TWFK), one of many charities supported by the Lab’s annual Helping Others More Effectively (HOME) Campaign.

Founded in 2005, TurningWheels has distributed more than 15,000 bikes to children throughout the Bay Area to encourage exercise, prevent childhood obesity and support low-income families. The San Jose-based charity aims to provide children ages 2 to 17 with child bikes, BMXs, cruisers and mountain bikes to stimulate outdoor activities such as riding a bike to school or to hang out with friends -- as a way to improve children’s health and well-being.

"The simple act of riding their own bike -- a childhood rite of passage -- brings these children independence, confidence, a fun way to exercise and a sense of adventure that nothing else can quite match," said McMichael, a 16-year Lab veteran from the Computational Engineering Division.

'These people give selflessly'

McMichael serves on the Tri-Valley Chapter’s board of directors and participates at the nonprofit’s special events. He first learned of TWFK from Cathy Griggs, who helped launch the Tri-Valley Chapter about three years ago. Since then, he’s been passionately repairing bikes and securing monetary donations so that needy children can receive bikes for Christmas and throughout the year.

"Cathy asked me to sit in on a board meeting a few months after the chapter was formed, and I was hooked by the dedication and passion of the board members," McMichael said. "These people give selflessly of their time to figure out ways to raise funds, repair bikes and organize volunteers -- to do anything within their power to brighten the lives of underprivileged kids."

McMichael helps organize free bike repair clinics, where children can get their bikes fixed for free, and the nonprofit’s signature event, the annual Big Bike Build on Dec. 6.

Staffed by volunteers, the Tri-Valley Chapter’s daylong repair clinics are held in Hayward, San Leandro and Livermore between June and September in convenient locations for impoverished children who may have to walk their bikes to the repair clinics.

Around 70 to 100 bikes are serviced at each clinic for repairs that range from fixing flat tires, rewiring brakes, adjusting seats and replacing chains, tires and saddles. Sometimes a used bike in good condition will be exchanged for a bike that’s beyond repair or given to a sibling that has to share the family bike.

Demand outweighs supplies

The Big Bike Build is where TWFK’s San Jose Chapter builds and distributes 2,000 new bikes for kids at the South Hall Convention Center in San Jose, and the Tri-Valley Chapter gives away 750 bikes at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton. The vast majority of the new bikes are purchased at a discounted rate from manufacturers Dynacraft and Raleigh with funds donated by individuals and corporations.

"The Big Bike Build’s success is due to the generosity of the hundreds of volunteers who give up a Saturday to converge on the fairgrounds to assemble bikes from boxes, so that thousands of children will have a brighter Christmas," McMichael said.

The Tri-Valley Chapter works with partner charities and community groups that interact directly with client families to select the children who will receive bikes from the Big Bike Build. These organizations include Agape Villages, Bay Area Youth Centers, Bay Area Rescue Mission, Catholic Charities East Bay, Contra Costa Kops for Kids, Davis Street Family Resource Center, Faith & Hope, Friends of Oakley, Hayward Police Department, Lincoln Child Center, Livermore Police Department, Marilyn Avenue School, Pleasanton Police Department, Richmond Fire Department, San Lorenzo Family Help Center and St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County.

The organizations submit applications based on the needs. McMichael and his fellow board members award bikes to the groups based on supply and demand. Oftentimes, the demand for new bikes far outweighs the supplies.

"The number of bikes requested by community organizations always exceed our available inventory, so those organizations undoubtedly have a hard time selecting who receives a bike and who doesn’t," McMichael said.

Corporate team building

To offset the demand, TWFK sponsors year-round events known as "corporate bike builds." These are corporate team building events where participating companies challenge their employees to assemble new bikes purchased for TWFK. Some participating organizations have included Genentech, the San Francisco 49ers and the San Jose Sharks.

"The bike build provided a visually stunning backdrop for publicity purposes, but more importantly, the bikes promoted healthy living and created a lasting memory for the kids receiving them," Sharks Foundation Manager Jeff Cafuir said. "To top it off, the event was a fun and engaging teambuilding experience for our employees. We couldn’t be happier with our experience working with TWFK and look forward to future events."
McMichael said he is proud to volunteer at an organization filled with dedicated individuals who are focused on making a difference in children’s lives.

"The smiles you see on the kids’ faces when they receive a new bike clearly indicates how big a difference you just made, and the child’s joy is equally matched by the parents’ joy in seeing their child happy," he said.

Griggs, who co-chairs the Tri-Valley Chapter, said McMichael’s passion to help children and his affable personality is a positive force for the organization.

"He has a real love for kids and wants to see them living a very healthy lifestyle," Griggs said. "He is a highly dependable guy who has a calm and friendly manner. People who work with Larry always walk away feeling valuable. He’s such a caring spirit."

In addition to McMichael, several current and retired LLNL employees also volunteer at TWFK. They include Vic Karpenko, Dennis Elchesen and Jerry Schweickert.

If you would like to volunteer or donate to TWFK, visit the website. You can also make a monetary donation through the HOME Campaign.