Miami has the stereotype of a shallow party city, full of beautiful people in scant clothing. But it turns out that Miami is also a generous and warm fitness community that shined with the Camillus House Children’s Run Team. The program consisted on pairing formerly homeless children living at Camillus House’s Mother Seton Village, a transitional housing facility, with counterparts from affluent communities around Miami. In a gist: the team met in June and trained together for a week; in August they raced and if they beat their summer camp times they earned bikes for all the children living at Mother Seton – close to 80. Saturday, August 22 was the race.
We arrived at the Homestead Air Reserve Park early Saturday to set up what I hoped would be an extraordinary event. Soon after we got there, Kimmy and Benny from Camillus House came with two truck-loads of bicycles. That would be the first of three deliveries. We all got to work and began taking down the bikes and staging them. As we were doing this, a man approached us saying he could help. I was cautious. I wasn’t sure what this guy wanted or his expectations. I didn’t want him to think we would be able to pay him because we didn’t have any left over funds. Turns out he was a resident of Camillus House and his daughter (I think) was coming to get a bicycle. He was there to help set up in gratitude. Ugh. I hate it when my prejudices slap me on my face.
Soon Coaches Lilly and Gaby from Tri4Kidz arrived and began setting up the race course. Next came the folks from BikeSafe who were going to do helmet fittings and hand out good bags, followed by Mack Cycle who was in charge of making sure the bikes we handed out were indeed functional.
The Camillus House children from the run team finally arrived. They had first dibs on the bicycles because after all, everyone was going to get a bike today because of their literal sweat and tears. Every time a van full of bikes arrived from storage, whoever was there came to help unload them and take each bike to their appropriate corral. Some of the team girls came over to the Mack Cycle van to help unload. What they didn’t know was there were six new bikes being donated. When they saw the bicycles, they couldn’t believe they were going to get them. A twelve year old girl told me: “Coach Miss Cristina (’cause that’s my name now), if I get one of those bikes I am going to cry.” I hugged her and told her to help get her bike out of the van. I also told them, if you want to keep them … you better race your hearts out and beat those times.
The crowd began to gather, and it was time to race. We explained that everyone was gathered there today because the kids in the run team had been working hard all summer. The team got a big applause and thank you from the crowd.
The younger kids would race 400 meters twice, the older ones would race a 400 and an 800. It was in the 90s when the race began.
The younger kids beat their times, but the older kids missed it by a few seconds. It was so hot, one racer vomited after her 400. There’s a fine line between pushing limits and going too far. But we could tell the kids were giving their best that day, encouraged by the cheering and clapping from the crowd.
Each child got a medal when they finished and that was another highlight. I heard these comments:
“Are these real medals? You see! I told you they were real medals!”
“I’ve never gotten a medal!”
“Can we keep them?”
We credited the team for racing hard and announced everyone would be getting a bicycle that day.
Every flow chart I created for the actual bike distribution flew out the window. Nothing worked quite the way I thought it would, but it all found a natural flow. First the parents registered for the event, then each child was fitted with a helmet. They went to their appropriate corral (bikes were divided by size) and when called they went in to choose a bicycle. Once they had everything, children attended a bike rodeo to learn safety rules and handling skills. I thought we would have some sort of chaos but unless I missed it, everything was fine.
Two things surprised me the most about the day. First, was the hard work the volunteers put in. I’ve volunteered many times and I know the good ones when I see them; these people were sweating buckets moving bikes, registering people, taking photos, you name it. They were there to work, and they did.
Second, I thought there would be more arguing about who gets what bike. In fact, my original idea was we brought the bikes out to the child to avoid tantrums. Instead, the children were able to walk to their corral and choose the bike they wanted, and out of over 70 bikes distributed there was only one tantrum I heard of.
Two girls on the team wanted the same shiny bike from Mack Cycle. They both came to me about who should get it. I told them I couldn’t decide and they had to figure it out. There was just one.
I love my own children, but I am well aware that if the same situation occurred between my boys a drama would ensue. Not here. I did hear an “it’s not fair” but there was no pouting or resentment. At the end of the day, I caught up to the girl who did not get the new bike. I said “Oh I’m glad you got another good one!” And she said yes, she was happy with it. Her brothers were also getting bikes and they could all share.
I heard of another girl, not in the team, who was taking care of her younger siblings all day and helped them pick out their bikes. She chose one for herself, but something was wrong and they couldn’t fix it. By the time she got back to the corral apparently the big bicycles were gone and she ended up with a smaller one.
I approached her to let her know I would get her a bicycle, somehow, and she said “I’m okay, I got one.” She was content with it anyways.
The gratitude I felt from those kids was overwhelming.
But what did it all mean? Did we do something important or was this simply hand me down charity?
I believe that for the 70+ children not on the team, they lucked out and were able to receive something right before school started. A bike can mean anything to a child: fun, independence, or even transportation. They were beneficiaries but not of charity, of hard work.
But for the children on the team, I feel we did something important. I asked my boys how they felt at the end of the day, and Fearless, age 8, said “proud.” He explained he felt proud that he could make so many kids happy (his words not mine.)
I wasn’t able to ask the other children that day, but I got these spontaneous comments:
“The other day I was so angry with my parents I went for a run, and I ran the fastest I ‘ve ever run before. Now I run to not be angry.”
“I’m going to join the track team at school.”
“I feel I can do anything now. I’m ready for high school!”
“This was the best part of summer. The rest of it was pretty hard.”
“Can we do it again?”
“This is the best day of my LIFE.”
“Ya’ll better like those bikes because I worked hard for them!”
To add to my joy, some friends headed over to Mother Seton Village to deliver back to school backpacks and supplies. They told me when they arrived they saw kids everywhere riding their bicycles. They sent me this:
I am not sure why I started this program, I just know it grew and grew because so many people offered to lend a hand. It seemed like so many of us in Miami had a little part in this. Everything we needed we got: over 90 bicycles, helmets, tshirts, water bottles, goody bags, water coolers, food, medals, new shoes and run gear, and the list goes on. So sure Miami is a fun and fast city but it is one with a big heart as well. And mine just got a little bigger to include all these amazing kids!
PS. To those of you who helped from out of state, specially the women in TriEqual who sent in tons of sporting stuff … don’t feel left out! You were the first ones to help and made me believe this would indeed be possible.