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Operation HeartFELT teams up to assemble bicycles for Hernando County children

Jody Fletcher, having tightened the last bolt on a brand-new, metallic-gray Huffy bicycle, took a moment to admire his work.

"Some kid's going to be happy," said Fletcher, one of more than 200 Accuform Signs employees pressed into duty to assemble Christmas bikes Monday morning at the Hernando County Airport Industrial Park.

According to the personalized license plate that another worker, Rick Lisi, attached to the back of the bicycle's seat, this kid's name is Matteo. The four-person assembly team that Lisi and Fletcher worked with also knew the boy was about 6 years old and that, almost certainly, he could use a little happiness on Christmas morning.

These bicycles were headed for children served by Operation HeartFELT. Those last four letters stand for "Feeding Empty Little Tummies" and say everything you need to know about this group, which from what I've seen does an unusually good job of finding and helping children who need it most: homeless ones, primarily — if not living in the woods or a car, then squeezed into the home of a family friend or relative.

"These are kids who are really, really having a hard time," said HeartFELT chairwoman Pattie Stepbach, who helped found the group two years ago.

I wrote about it then, as it was trying to meet its first deadline. The group formed after learning that many of Hernando County's poorest children, the ones who depend on the breakfasts and lunches served at schools, were facing a long holiday break when they would very likely have no meals at all.

HeartFELT volunteers scrambled before winter break to fill backpacks with staples such as cereal and baked beans. They were at one school then, Eastside Elementary, which had the highest percentage of students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals.

HeartFelt now serves six schools, making sure children don't go hungry during weekends and holiday breaks, that when they return to school they will be well nourished enough to learn.

HeartFELT sends enough food home to feed brothers and sisters, too, feeding a total of 129 children.

Last year, Faith Presbyterian Church in Brooksville decided these children should expect more than that on Christmas and provided gifts for of all the children served by HeartFELT. It will do so again this year.

Wayne Johnson, chief executive officer of Accuform and a friend of Stepbach's, also wanted to do more.

"This is one of my favorite charities," Johnson said.

Said Stepback: "He asked me if I would accept a bike for every HeartFELT child at Christmas, and I wasn't going to turn that down."

Huffy supplied the bicycles to Accuform at a reduced cost. Bell Sports and Master Lock Co. did the same for, respectively, the helmets and locks that were attached to each bike.

The children were surprised by the bicycles on Tuesday, when they were delivered to their schools.

For Accuform workers, the surprise came Monday morning.

They knew they would do something charitable; they do every year. They didn't know they would be building bikes and were led from the factory to an open-air hangar-like building a few doors down and presented with the sight of 100 boxed bicycles on 50 tables.

Knowing that not everyone was prepared for the task, the company formed teams of employees with manufacturing jobs — presumably used to working with their hands — mixed with office workers.

On this crew, though, accounting clerk Jessica Holmes was one of the first to grab a wrench.

Cathy Paquin, who works on the factory floor, stood back with her arms crossed.

"I'm really good at supervising," she joked, before proving her value to the team by producing a utility knife to cut the zip ties that held the license plate, helmet and lock.

One reason for the lock, Stepbach said, is that some of these children might not have a garage for storing their new bikes — maybe not even a porch or a yard.

"A lot of people have asked me about giving bikes to homeless kids," she said.

But the fact that these children lack something they need — a real home — shouldn't be a reason to deprive them of something they want — a bicycle at Christmas.

"These kids are entitled to the same dreams as everybody else," Stepbach said.

Who can argue with that? Who can say that in this rich county some children deserve only cereal on Christmas morning?

Operation HeartFELT teams up to assemble bicycles for Hernando County children 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 6:51pm]
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