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MIRACLE ON 102ND AVE.

Crossing guard Denice Rigali gets students home safe - and now, faster.

On the southeast corner of 102nd Avenue and Seminole Boulevard, it was just another stop on another long walk home from school on a sweaty September afternoon.

But six lanes away, it might as well have been Christmas morning.

Katrina LeWarne and Michelle Moore, both 13, stopped on Monday, as they do every day, in the middle of their 2-mile trek home from Osceola Middle School.

This time, waiting at the other end of the Seminole Boulevard crosswalk, planted like reindeer lawn ornaments, were seven refurbished bicycles. Theirs for the choosing.

Halfway across, their gaits quickened. School crossing guard Denice Rigali, arms spread for securing passage, craned her neck and smiled a quick hello.

Katrina skipped up the sidewalk. Michelle darted ahead, and bunny-hopped onto the grass. There, smiles turned to oohs and aahs.

Just like that, the girls' daily, 4-mile ritual was transformed by a near-stranger. Michelle settled on a black Magna mountain bike. Katrina picked a red Schwinn.

Rigali, 54, handed the girls slips of paper with her phone number. She told the girls to give them to their parents, because grownups know Santa does not exist.

Except sometimes, Santa wears a bright orange vest, sunglasses and sun-scorched skin. Rigali has been a county school crossing guard for five years. She's also a mother and grandmother, and, long ago, a little girl who loved doing pop-a-wheelies in the cold Chicago suburbs.

On Friday, she told a dozen students who cross her path each day to bring helmets and bike locks next time. She'd noticed that the kids who walk to school leave their homes earlier, well before Rigali's shift begins. If they had bikes, she thought, they could cut down on their commute.

And Rigali would be there to protect them.

"These streets are dangerous, because people are on their way to work texting on a cell phone," she said. "They almost hit me half the time, and I'm wearing orange."

Over the weekend, Rigali and her husband, Darryl, 56, hit the flea market, garage sales and pawn shops. Sellers conspired like elves, letting the bikes go for $5 to $20, or even free, for the cause. Back home, Darryl Rigali tweaked new life into the bikes.

On Monday, six children rode away on two wheels. The Rigalis plan to give away about six more, so that every kid on the route who wants a bike has one.

It turns out that both Katrina and Michelle had bikes stolen in the recent past.

"We probably wouldn't have been able to get her a bike," admitted Katrina's dad, Buddy LeWarne, 52, a landscaper. "The last Christmas and birthdays have been very, very small for us in our house. We just don't have a lot of extra money to spend right now."

"It was pretty cool of the school crossing guard to do that," he added of Rigali's gesture. "She must care about the kids a lot. I think it's really kind of special."

Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

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Every day, people are making a difference in our communities: getting groceries for a sick neighbor; giving a bonus or day off to workers at a small business; visiting an elderly person who lives alone. We would like to share the many ways that people, randomly, selflessly, help others. E-mail your tale to kindness@sptimes.com and make sure to include your name and phone number.

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