Pedal and steer, steer and pedal, just like Papa says.
About eight years ago Diann Dimitri attended a breakfast for the homeless with the Gainesville Cycling Club that brought together many local agencies. While pitching in with minor bike repairs at the plaza, a man come up to her and said he didn't even have a bike. Dimitri took his name and number, and found out he was a veteran living at a Veterans Affairs-run facility called the The HONOR center for homeless veterans in Gainesville. Shortly thereafter, Dimitri chatted with the staff there, and the wheels began to spin into motion—proverbially and physically—for getting free bikes to vets.
Fast forward to 2017, and Bikes 4 Vets has now donated more than 500 bikes to veterans in need, building a close relationship with The HONOR Center. The HONOR center serves homeless vets and houses around 45 veterans at any given time. Many have battled problems ranging from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to addiction struggles. With her only advertising campaign a one-time distribution of a box of business cards with "Bikes 4 Vets" and Dimitri's contact info, the word has now spread beyond the Gainesville community to other Florida cities like St. Petersburg and Lake City.
WATCH: Texas Police Officers On Patrol Stop To Mow Disabled Veteran’s Lawn
"It's very heartwarming," said Dimitri, whose passion for the project is evident in the way she talks about the difference these bikes make. She recalled fondly a gentleman whom she encountered in really bad shape, looking for a bike. Now this veteran has been fixing bikes and working with Dimitri for about five years.
Another vet, Raul, was at the HONOR center when he crossed paths with the two-person-run operation. He had a prior head injury and difficulty walking. Bikes 4 Vets was able to give him a donated electric assist trike recumbent to fit his needs. When Raul moved into his more permanent home, he began to volunteer with the Friends of the Library every Tuesday, and it was because of the bike that he was able to get down to the library at least once a week. "He's just such an outstanding guy," added Dimitri.
Thanks to help from the local community and a $5,000 grant from Home Depot, Dimitri was able to get a bike shed and tools at The HONOR center. As for what's next? Dimitri firmly believes in the importance of this program in empowering veterans to lead more independent lives. She's also quick to mention, of course, how cost-effective the mode of transportation is, and vital for those who can't afford a car or can't drive one for a variety of reasons. Take, for instance, one example of the deep portfolio of success stories she has amassed over the years: A bike recipient used to have to wake up at 5:00 am to go the bus stop, and the bike has now saved him over an hour of time in commuting. "I've kept saying, this program should be everywhere there are vets," Dimitri underscores, her belief in the power of the simple charity so evident. "I see this expanding, but I want it to be done right."
For now, she's happy to see the smiles on veterans' faces as they rediscover the joy a bike can bring to life. "I've had folks who tell me they haven't biked since they were kids. Now, whole groups of them are downtown on Friday nights at Bo Diddley Plaza and go to different music venues. They'll travel together and they'll have their lights on. One of the vets that I've gotten close to said 'You should see all these lights taking off!'"
For more information or to learn how to get involved, you can send a message through the Facebook page at facebook.com/Bikes4Vets.