Wendy Koch juggles many roles in her United Way senior director of regional engagement position. She jokes that she has often been the logistics department for the volunteer events that the nonprofit holds to ensure residents’ health and well-being.

The first year after the pandemic, its annual Build a Bike event changed from one to three locations over three days to ensure no one site was overcrowded and prevent as much as possible any disease spread. That meant that Koch, who picked up the bikes — specifically for 7- to 9-year-old children — and delivered them to the volunteers, drove a large U-Haul around to each one.

Those bikes reach the children through partner agencies. At the end of one of the events in 2021, Koch learned that one in Armstrong County could no longer pick up its allotment. So she and a co-worker drove the 1½ hours to the site, a church, where Salvation Army staff would meet her.

She didn’t realize the children who would receive the bikes would be there as well.

“When I got out of that U-Haul, it was better than being Santa Claus,” she said. “They were so excited! Just to see their faces and the joy this gift was bringing them is what keeps me moving on this event.”

Friday is the final two-hour volunteer event to assemble the bikes. Volunteers from 30 companies worked Wednesday in Butler, Thursday in Westmoreland County and Friday in Allegheny County. All told they will assemble 600 bikes, according to a United Way news release.

During the three-day event, 300 volunteers will work in 20 teams to build 10 bikes each, resulting in 600 bikes, double the number of bikes built last year. At the end of each day, 200 bikes will be inspected by bike safety experts and distributed to the respective county’s agency partners. Each child will also receive a bike helmet and a bike lock, Koch said.

Over the past nine years, United Way’s Build A Bike has built and distributed 1,525 bikes to children across the region. This year, the 10th annual event will bring that total to more than 2,100 bikes, according to the release.

The goal: foster healthy habits and provide an outlet for physical activity and fun, which relates directly to building for success in school and life, United Way officials stated. And the volunteers — some of whom are technically proficient and help those who are not so handy — have a great deal of fun working together, Koch said.

How this all started: For more than a decade, United Way has worked with fundraising and sales consultant John Rosso. He heard about a nonprofit in Florida that hosted a bike-building event and thought such an event could be successful here in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Rosso’s company, Sandler, pitched the idea to United Way, and it gave him enthusiastic yes. Sandler bought the first 100 bikes and helped to recruit teams of volunteers for the first event, according to United Way public relations staff, which was held at Heinz Field 10 years ago. It was an unqualified success.

Since then, United Way has taken the lead on Build A Bike, and the event has grown over time to this year and its 600 bikes. “It was a great joint project, and it’s beautiful to see it in action,” Rosso said.

Bayer volunteers Kristin Pichora, left, Emily Gianamore, Nicholas Hersman, Megan Davis and Susanne McGuinness with a finished bike at 2023’s volunteer event. (United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania)

United Way funding partners this year are First Energy Foundation, BMS Cat, FedEx Ground, K&L Gates, Williams, Ebara Elliott Energy, Koppers and Menasha.

Koch said the United Way and its many volunteers have developed a pretty good system to get this all done in two hours. The bikes come partially assembled, back wheel on, with 10 steps remaining to finish each 20-inch bike. “We find some groups are very engineering and technically inclined,” she said. “A group in Westmoreland comes every year, and they can assemble these in 15 minutes.  For most people, it takes the full time.”

Post-pandemic, the system has changed from its early years. “The first couple of years post COVID, we aimed for 10 teams of five — 50 volunteers — to just do the building, Koch said. “Doubling the number of bikes means doubling to 100 volunteers. We have people who are ‘bike experts,’ who are particularly mechanically inclined, who get everyone started and check every bike so that when we hand them out to children, they are put together in a safe manner.”

This year the United Way has 39 partner agencies, and she and others determined that 600 bikes seemed to be the right amount for the need presented. Of course it could obtain and assemble more bikes with more funding.

Getting this event organized takes Koch and other United Way staff and volunteers six to eight weeks to get ready — finding partners, getting volunteers and more.

It’s all worth it, she said, to ensure that these children know the joy of riding a bike, feeling the wind in their hair and the freedom bicycling can bring.

“I love all of our events, but this one is so special,” Koch said.

Back to that Armstrong County trip: After Koch and her co-worker delivered the bikes and headed out with another 1½-hour drive looming to return the truck. On the way back, the truck started to make a terrible noise. Koch and her co-worker panicked a bit. How do you tow such a large U-Haul truck? The stretch of roadway ahead was just that: a long stretch with few signs of businesses or anything else.

Somehow, they made it back, she said, possibly because of the prayers they said enroute.

Koch won’t be driving rental trucks to sites this year. One of the funding partners, FedEx Ground, has seen to that. She says the United Way is very fortunate to have it helping on that aspect, as the company took care of receiving the bikes and distributing them to the three sites.

Thirty companies have provided volunteers for this year’s Build A Bike event, including First Energy, BMS Cat, Williams, K&L Gates, FedEx Ground, Ebara Elliott Energy, Koppers and Menasha; agency partners: Bible Center Church, Dae’Vion’s Place of Resilience, Divine Restoration Church, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Abiding Missions, Womanspace East, Jamar Place of Peace, Homeless Children Education Fund, For the Children Armstrong Royal Family Kids Camp, Keystone Family Alliance, Community Care Connections Camp Apple, Butler Area School District, The Lighthouse Foundation, Center for Community Resources, Glade Run, Uniontown Area YMCA, East End United Community Center, The Learning Lamp Center for Children at Penn Highlands Hospital Connellsville, Fayette County CYS, Laurel Highlands School District, HD Berkey Elementary, New Kensington-Arnold School District, The Learning Lamp at LVE, Mosaic Community Development Center, Yough School District, Westmoreland County Children’s Bureau, Sonward Youth Programs, and Jeannette McKee Elementary School, as well as United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania staff members.

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.