Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Jones: Bucs need success to get national respect

    Bucs

    Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones offers up his Two Cents on the world of sports.

    No respect

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter walks the field during the second day of mandatory minicamp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
  2. Hopes fade after landslide destroys Chinese village (w/video)

    World

    Crews searching through the night in the rubble left by a landslide that buried a mountain village under tons of soil and rocks in southwestern China found 15 bodies, but more than 110 more people remained missing.

    Vehicles and people line a road leading to the site of a landslide in Xinmo village in Mao County on Saturday in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province. More than 100 people remained missing after the village was buried under tons of rocks and soil.
  3. Rookie Jake Faria dissatisfied with performance in Rays' loss to Orioles

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The rookie pitcher walked to his locker Saturday after tossing the fourth quality start in as many tries to begin his career. He held the potent Orioles bats to three runs and for six innings gave his team a chance to win.

    Orioles third baseman Manny Machado tags out the Rays’ Mallex Smith at third after a rundown in the first inning.
  4. Thousands converge in two St. Pete locations celebrating LGBT rights

    Human Interest

    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Rockhill didn't know what to expect Saturday, but by noon people were knocking on the door of his bar Right Around the Corner in Grand Central.

    (From left to right) Emma Chalut 18, gets a rainbow sticker on her cheek from her sister Ellie, 15 both of Jacksonville before the annual St. Pete Pride parade in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday. This year the route was changed from the Grand Central and Kenwood area to Bayshore Drive.
[EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
  5. Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald dies

    TALLAHASSEE — A former Florida Supreme Court justice, who wrote a decision that prevented lawyers from excluding jurors because of their race, has died.

    Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald died Saturday, the court said in a statement. He was 93.