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Omaha Magazine

To the (Bike) Rescue

Aug 22, 2023 02:51PM ● By Sara Locke
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A Station 5 in northeast Omaha, Tom McCoy did what all firefighters do during their long shifts: he killed time. 

“You spend 24 hours on [a shift], and when you get a call, you are out the door without hesitation,” McCoy said. “But when there isn’t a call…there is a lot of down time.” 

And during that down time, McCoy had taken to getting to know a few of the neighborhood kids. 

“There was this one kid we nicknamed ‘Fifty Cent.’ We had a vending machine on site and it sold pop for 50 cents,” he said. “We kept our doors open in the summer, and every day he would come around and ask everyone on site, ‘Hey, can I get 50 cents?’ Just all the time.”

Somehow, there was always change to spare for the station’s frequent visitor, and Fifty Cent was a welcome distraction from the monotony of waiting for a call. Seeing the child light up over a cold drink on a hot day was a morale boost on even the hardest days.

A Bicycle Built for… Three?

“One day I was outside and saw Fifty and two other kids all on his bike.” McCoy recalled. “This one old bike… one kid was riding the seat, another was sitting on the handle bars, and the other was standing on the back on the foot pegs. I asked them where their bikes were and they said they didn’t have one.”

While it was heartwarming to see kids outside playing, getting along—sharing even—there are some experiences McCoy felt just shouldn’t be missed out on. 

“I was a military brat. I moved around a lot, but there’s that one universal childhood memory of just hopping on your bike and riding it around the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s just the greatest feeling. And even though these kids are doing a great job of making it work, it wasn’t an opportunity they had been given.”

Soon thereafter, reminiscing turned to revelation. 

“We were all sitting around later that day and I thought, ‘I just know I have a bike laying around.’ One my kid outgrew and it was just sitting around collecting dust,” McCoy said. “Then a couple of the other guys said the same thing; they had a bike or two in their garages. They might need some work, but they were good bikes.”

McCoy put out the word to the department. 

“We asked if anyone knew how to wrench on bikes, thinking we had a nice handful to give out to the neighborhood,” he continued. “But one thing you’ve got to know about firefighters is that they show up—if you ask for a couple, you’re going to get a dozen.”

Helmet Club Bikes for Kids was launched in June 2013 to create a space to connect over the project. 

The crew’s “handful of bikes” continued to multiply, and they needed a place to store and repair them before the giveaway. Then-Fire Captain Jerry Kleidosty stepped up in an unexpected way that first year, partnering with McCoy and his ragtag team of ‘wrenchers.’ 

“Jerry had started a business, Timberland Hardwood Floors. He stepped up right away and offered to be our sponsor that first year,” McCoy said. “He let us use his shop to do all of our repairs. He even made a banner for us for our giveaway event. That’s still the banner we use, in fact.”

Another unexpected surprise came in the form of a partnership with Bike Rack’s Steve Herbermann. 

“Steve was so great to deal with, and Bike Rack was so generous,” McCoy said “We ended up with so many more bikes than we thought we could get our hands on, and Bike Rack donated a helmet for every single one.”

On July 5, 2013, the crew gave away 125 bikes and helmets to kids in the Florence area. 

“Fifty and his friends were all there. They each got to pick out a bike, a safe bike, and one they liked,” McCoy explained. “And they each got a helmet to go with it.”

The team came together a few more years to host giveaways, but soon, Bike Rack was no longer able to take part in the event. Without his biggest sponsor, and coming up on retirement himself, McCoy had to come to terms with the fact that the mission had served its purpose and run its course. 

Taking Another Spin

In 2019, Alex Emerson was in his second year on the fire department when his children had outgrown their bikes. 

“I had heard about this program but didn’t know how to go about donating my kids’ bikes,” Emerson recalled. “I started talking with my neighbor, who is also a fireman, and he told me that the program was no longer going. We were just talking and I don’t know if he convinced me or if he let me convince him, but we agreed to start the program up again.”

Emerson reached out to McCoy to learn the ropes of how he had run the Bikes for Kids program. With the groundwork in place, he set about acquiring sponsors and partners to make the project sustainable. 

“I learned so much from Tom, and this program meant a lot to him,” Emerson said. “I wanted to do everything I could to get it going again. I reached out to people selling bikes on Facebook, asking if they’d be willing to donate them. I worked with Habitat Restore and set up a relationship with them. We partnered with Goodwill, too. They’ve been very good to us, donating 50 to a 100 bikes every year.

“The first year, our event was at Howard Elementary School in North Omaha. We gave away 150 bikes. We had worked really hard that first year, it was very involved. I was dropping off five bikes a week all through the winter at Bikeway, during their off season. They would fix them up for us in their down time. The firefighters were working on two or three bikes at a time, and we were working on them every day, from the day we started collecting them until the giveaway. We had to figure out some new logistics to make it sustainable.” 

The second year, an answer to those logistics found Emerson.

“Team Bike Rescue of Omaha is a nonprofit here in town, and [Rick Settje] reached out to me. This is what he does all year, for all kinds of organizations,” Emerson said. “He refurbishes bikes and donates them. That partnership was huge. I was still struggling to keep it efficient, because at that point I had bikes in my garage, in my truck, everywhere. Another firefighter’s father-in-law owns Milt’s Mini Storage, and he donated a garage for us to store the bikes in. Everyone was pitching in whatever they could, and it was just looking better all the time.”

The second year of the newly relaunched event was held at GI Forum in South Omaha. A whopping 165 bikes were given away, and it looked like the team had found its rhythm. But like most modern stories, it was hit with this too-familiar plot twist:

“And then the next year, COVID hit,“ Emerson said. “The president of our union, Steve LeClair, reached out to churches in North Omaha to arrange smaller giveaways. We would bring 10 bikes to the church and give them away outside.”

In spite of a global shutdown, the team still managed to come through for the kids in need of wheels.

“We love doing this, and it’s such a welcome respite from getting a call and spending someone’s worst day with them; to be able to step away and give families this really happy moment,” Emerson affirmed. “When we’re working on these bikes—when we’re making the calls or hauling them from storage to repair to the event—we’re thinking that whole time about the big payoff. Seeing that one kid ride off on a bike they got to choose on their own.”

Emerson remains humble, deflecting all credit back to Tom McCoy for his original vision, and showering his many sponsors, partners, and volunteers with praise: 

“It’s so much less stressful for me now. Goodwill sends volunteers for the event, Play it Again Sports gives us the helmets at cost. The Helmet Club pays some of the expenses, and the Union is paying for the helmets now. Tom made such a great event every year, and he didn’t have the support I do now. I am so grateful to him for creating this opportunity, and for everyone who comes together to make sure we can just have an amazing event and enjoy all of the smiles we get to see!” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, 
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