PALM HARBOR — Georges Elou has never owned a bike.
Born in Syria, he never saw children zipping through his neighborhood on the backs of their own bicycles. Even in Lebanon, where Elou spent most of his childhood, riding bicycles through town was something reserved for TV shows and movies, not real life.
It wasn’t until he was in high school, when his family was able to immigrate to New Jersey, that Elou saw the joy a bicycle could bring. Now, the 52-year-old deli owner buys bicycles by the truckload every year. But still, never a bike for himself.
“As soon as I get a bike I want to give it away to a child who needs it,” Elou said. “It just makes me happy to give them something that’s special. Anybody can give a kid a toy, but not everybody can have their own bike.”
He added: “A bike is more than just a toy to a young man. It’s freedom.”
For nine years, Elou and friends of his Palm Harbor restaurant, Shlomo’s Gourmet Subs and Deli, have donated hundreds of bicycles to children in need on Christmas Eve. What started as a Christmas toy drive has evolved into an annual, months-long mission at the heart of a growing community of family and friends that Elou calls the “Shlomo Army.”
And this year, despite a global shortage of bicycles amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Elou said his annual bike drive has seen more donations than ever before.
In just two weeks, Elou and the Shlomo’s staff have collected more than 200 children’s bicycles, he said.
The best year Shlomo’s Army ever had saw 279 kids get new bicycles. Last year was the smallest haul the group ever got at 221 bikes.
“With the coronavirus, I think people have seen how much it means for children to be able to go outside and have something of their own, something that can take them places,” Elou said. “It just makes me feel good from beginning to end. It makes me want to give 120 percent.”
Boxes of brand new bicycles line the walls of his shop, blocking the windows in stacks that push up against his ceiling tiles. The bicycles spill into his dining room, crowding the scattered tables and chairs.
His goal is to give out at least 400 bicycles on Christmas Eve. That’s when Shlomo’s Army gathers in the store parking lot at 3:30 a.m. to assemble the bikes and take them for a test ride around the deli’s parking lot. Then they take to the streets, often with a couple of professional mall Santa Clauses in tow.
The group works with Cops ‘n’ Kids Youth Center of Tarpon Springs, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and local Syrian and Egyptian churches to identify families with children who could use a brand new bike.
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Already, Elou has five families on his Christmas list - mostly single mothers or fathers hit hard by the pandemic.
It’s not an effort they usually advertise, Elou said. He prefers to solicit donations by word of mouth, among friends and loved ones and customers who ask about the mountain of bicycle boxes piling up in his shop each year. He’s turned down offers to go on TV or team up with marketing firms promising thousands of internet followers.
An act of charity should be grounded in humility, not with flashy advertising inviting praise, Elou said. He credits his faith and his family for his personal success with his deli — the 15-year-old neighborhood sandwich shop owned by a vegetarian. That’s why Elou chose not to put his own name on his shop, but rather call it “Shlomo’s” - a name that comes from the Aramaic word for “peaceable” - “a very close, deep peace that settles in your soul,” he said.
“I’m not an angel, I’m just a man who lives in faith and lives in love and likes to do little things to make people happy,” Elou said. “Giving out bikes is something simple I can do to make someone’s life a little better, and those little acts of charity are the joy in living.”