Tampa man's bicycle donations to continue despite theft

CARROLLWOOD — At Alex Cooks' barbecue restaurant, a jar sat undisturbed on the counter for 13 years.

Customers dropped crumpled dollars, checks and change inside year-round. During the holidays, Cooks bought bicycles at Walmart with the money and donated them to children in need.

That someone would steal the jar never crossed Cooks' mind, he said.

That changed Nov. 18.

A man smashed the front glass of Alex's Southern Style Bar-B-Q just before 4 a.m. Within 30 seconds, the burglar had snatched the jar and was gone. So was about $700 inside it.

"They are costing me money for breaking my window," Cooks said. "But they are stealing from the kids and stealing from the community."

The case remains unsolved. The money has not been recovered.

But since the burglary, more donations have trickled in.

Thursday morning, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies dropped off 55 bikes off at Cooks' restaurant. Walmart had donated them to the Sheriff's Office charities program.

Cooks greeted the deputies with a smile as they lined the shiny new bikes in front of the restaurant. They came in all colors, with training wheels, ribbons and baskets.

The donation brings Cooks' total to about 850 bicycles, which he will donate to needy families Dec. 19. He hopes to give out 1,000 bikes by Christmas.

A golf tournament held earlier this week raised another $5,000 for Cooks' cause.

Customers also have stepped forward. Among them was a 5-year-old girl who handed Cooks $50 from her savings.

"She said she felt like everybody should have a bike," Cooks said.

For Cooks, the cause is personal. He grew up with nine brothers and sisters in Mobile, Ala. His dad worked at a roofing materials factory. His mother stayed home to take care of the kids.

"She had the big job," Cooks said.

On Christmas, they each received a small gift. But all Cooks dreamed of was a bicycle.

He moved to Tampa in 1985 after losing a football scholarship because of a wrecked shoulder. After working at several restaurants, he decided to open his own.

In 1994, Cooks, along with other partners, opened the barbecue restaurant at 5362 W Village Drive.

Then the bike donations began.

In the past 13 years, Cooks estimates he has donated some 20,000 bikes year-round, with 13,000 of those given to children during Christmas.

Last Christmas, he donated about 750. The most he ever bought was in 2007, at more than 1,400 bikes.

Cooks reaches out to Hillsborough elementary schools to find children from low-income families. Days before Christmas, parents meet him at the Walmart on Gunn Highway to pick up the bikes.

At the restaurant, traces of the burglary remain. Long scratches can be seen on the linoleum floor where the rock skidded and landed. A new jar, which Cooks now locks away every night, sits on the counter.

And the large garden rock used to shatter the glass is displayed at the entrance.

Just in case, Cooks said, someone recognizes it.

Laura C. Morel can be reached at (813)226-3386, or lmorel@tampabay.com.

Tampa man's bicycle donations to continue despite theft 12/13/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012 11:14pm]

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