Bicycle charity joins fight against childhood obesity
Originally published by the San Jose Mercury News July 6, 2011.
By Joe Rodriguez
The 8-year-old boy wasn’t going to get on a pink bike. No way, no how.
“No!” Jesus Arteaga said.
And no amount of gender-correctness from older folks at a free bike-repair clinic the other day in San Jose was going to change his mind. But the bike was free, a hand-me-down from his sister, so Jesus shyly asked a bicycle mechanic whether he could make it look more, you know, like a boy’s bike.
“When I heard that, my heart sank,” said Sue Runsvold, a nurse whose bicycle charity put on the free repair clinic. She gave the OK for a macho makeover. Off came the pink chain guard, rosy pedals and white tires. On went black ones. Although Jesus was happy with the results, the bike frame remained a pinkish purple.
“I wish I had brought a can of black spray paint,” Runsvold said. “I’ll have to remember that for next time. Boys won’t ride girlie bikes.”
Six years after starting the nonprofit Turning Wheels for Kids, Runsvold has delivered about 11,000 bikes to needy children in Silicon Valley at Christmastime. That alone would put her on the road to sainthood in the eyes of many if she stopped there, but the nurse who manages a postsurgery unit at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center isn’t done. The follow-up counts just as much.
Away from the hoopla of the Christmas bike deliveries and bike-repair clinics, Turning Wheels quietly donates 200 bikes a year to overweight or obese children at the hospital’s Pediatric Healthy Lifestyles Center. The center treats 1,000 new kids every year.”It’s been an amazing aspect for us,” said Dr. Patricia Barreto, one of three supervising doctors there. “Anything that makes a child more active is going to make them more healthy.”
By age 5, a third of all children in Santa Clara County are overweight or obese, according to a 2007 survey. That statistic jumps to almost half of all children by age 11. The prevalence of obesity at all ages is highest among Hispanic children, and lowest among Asian kids.
Getting families to adopt healthier diets is one thing, but the doctors don’t have to lecture the kids to mount the bikes. They simply take off. All Barreto tells them is to include cycling in the 60 minutes of exercise they should do every day. The center hasn’t measured the direct health benefits from the biking, but Barreto is convinced it works.
“Physical activity is a cornerstone, metabolically,” she said. “You should see the smiles on these kids’ faces when they leave here with their new bikes.”
Growing up in Fullerton, a working-class town in Orange County, Runsvold said she always dreaded answering the question, “What did you get for Christmas?”
Her father, who drank too much and spent time in prison, wasn’t around much. Her mother, a secretary, simply couldn’t afford new bikes for her three kids.
“We were lower middle-class, but I thought we were lower than that,” Runsvold said. “I was just like the kids we serve today.”
Married and a mother at age 21, she showered her children with Christmas presents because she didn’t want them to dread the Christmas question. “They’d get five, six or seven presents just from Santa Claus.”
The years and decades flew by. The Runsvolds moved around the country, eventually settling in San Jose in 1994. She earned a nursing degree from San Jose State. Her children gave her grandchildren.
Then her marriage collapsed, and so did the gratification of seeing wall-to-wall gifts under the Christmas tree. “I now saw opulence under the tree,” Runsvold said.
She thought about her struggling mother, who accepted donated toys for her children at Christmastime and baked cookies as gifts for friends and relatives.
“I asked myself, ‘What was hard for me to get as a kid?’ A bike!”
Two weeks before Christmas 2002, she and a few friends raised enough money to buy 12 bikes from a toy store and gave them to San Jose firefighters to give to poor children. Runsvold and her friends gave away 40 bikes the second year.
Word spread, volunteers signed on, and Turning Wheels was born. Bicycle manufacturers Raleigh and Dynacraft jumped on board with hefty discounts.
Last Christmas, the charity raised $257,000 and gave away more than 2,000 bikes.
It sounds as if Turning Wheels is cruising, but Runsvold said it’s still pedaling uphill.
A new “Buck for a Bike” campaign hopes to raise the equivalent of $1 from everyone in Silicon Valley, to create an endowment of $1.7 million. That would give Turning Wheels a base income and allow it to think ahead and add educational and health programs.
“I work 40 hours as a nurse, and then I go home and work 40 hours doing this,” Runsvold said. “This is my passion.”
She doesn’t like being called director or chairwoman, but given Turning Wheels’ growth and popularity, Runsvold just might be creating a second career.
Do you have a story for Eastside/Westside? Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information or to make a donation, go to www.turningwheelsforkids.org.