CARROLLWOOD — As the sun came up over the Walmart parking lot Wednesday morning, more than 500 bikes glittered in the dawning light — purple, black, pink bikes lined up in rows, shining.
Alex's Xmas for Kids foundation, created by the late Alex Cooks, is in the 16th year of passing out bikes for kids in need of a Christmas.
But this was the first year without Alex.
Cooks, who owned Alex's Southern Style BBQ in Carrollwood, was leaving a Winn-Dixie parking lot on his motorcycle June 9 when he struck a car on Fletcher Avenue. He was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and died a day later.
He was 49.
"It's a little tough — but we're doing our best to make him proud," his wife, Aimee Cooks, said Wednesday at the bike giveaway that her husband started with just a donation jar.
"He was the face of the foundation, he was the most generous," she said.
In 1999, Cooks had a little extra money from the restaurant, and he wanted to do something to give back. He had never had a bike as a kid, his 27-year-old son Alex Cooks Jr. said.
He wanted kids to unwrap a bike on Christmas Day.
He wanted their faces to light up, and for them to hop on their new present and ride until dark.
Usually, Aimee Cooks said, her husband ran the drive, organizing and loading bikes and standing in front of the TV cameras with a smile.
This year, she and her stepson took on those roles.
Alex Jr. donned a Santa hat as he loaded up bikes. "Merry Christmas," he shouted to a woman driving away with three boy's bikes.
"Good work, Santa," she shouted back.
"There's some emotion behind it," Alex Jr. said. "I feel that he's proud right now, looking down on us, saying 'good job.' He was so good, just naturally. I try so hard to be like that, to be like him."
In the first years of the effort, there wasn't enough money from donations. Cooks would often pay out of his own pocket to ensure a child had a bike to ride on Christmas Day.
As the foundation grew, donations poured in. People drop money for donations at the restaurant all year long. Servers put their tip money in the jar.
This year, the foundation handed out 515 bikes.
As the supply steadily dwindled Wednesday, more trucks rolled up with white slips of paper on their windshields.
"Five boy bikes," a volunteer shouted, looking at the sheet. "Four girl bikes."
Black-and-red Huffys with plastic-covered seats were loaded. Then came the pink ones with purple streamers and white tires.
"With Alex gone, I didn't anticipate they'd even be doing it this year," said Ashley Beasley, a school counselor at Citrus Park Elementary.
She picked up five bikes.
"We've been coming to this for years," she said. "When we call and offer bikes to parents (in need of help) for their children, they're speechless. It's a blessing for the kids."
The line was filled with teachers, guidance counselors and other representatives from schools, who help dole out the bikes to parents before Christmas.
"It's such a struggle for parents who want to give their kids presents, but are having trouble, already working one to two jobs," Thompson Elementary School second-grade teacher Joanna Diebel said from a pickup window.
Her truck bed was overflowing, tires poking out in every direction.
"It's a big deal for those kids who really need a Christmas."
Contact Hanna Marcus at email@example.com or (727) 893-8603.