Donors supply 75 bicycles for families in Helping People Succeed program

OKEECHOBEE — Christmas came early for about 50 Okeechobee families thanks to the Helping People Succeed Program, Green Designs, Soundslinger and a host of local donors.

Santa and Mrs. Claus were on hand Saturday at the lodge at Sundance Trails (aka Sunshine Grove) in Okeechobee County to give out 75 bicycles to children who had no chance of receiving a bike for Christmas without this program.

Look at that great smile. The new bike matches her shirt and new helmet.

Suzy Hutcheson of Helping People Succeed said the families chosen for the program are participants in the Healthy Families Project.

Healthy Families Florida is a nationally accredited home visiting program for expectant parents and parents of newborns experiencing stressful life situations. The program improves childhood outcomes and increases family self-sufficiency by empowering parents through education and community support.

Mrs. Hutcheson said the Christmas bike giveaway was able to serve about half of the 100 Okeechobee families currently in the program.

She said they chose families who would most benefit from the bicycles, and made sure bikes were provided to all children in those families who are big enough to ride a bike.

The volunteers fit each bike to the new rider, adjusting the seat to the perfect height.

This was the second year for the bicycle giveaway. The first year, 10 bicycles were donated. Next year, organizers hope to include every family in the program.

Ms. Hutcheson said Healthy Families is voluntary, and serves families deemed “at risk” through a screening process conducted by obstetricians, pediatricians and hospitals.

Some mothers are identified for the program while they are pregnant. Some who may not have prenatal care are identified by a hospital or a pediatrician. Children in the program may be infants to age 5.

A volunteer helps these kids get going.

“It’s all voluntary,” she explained. “It’s not court-ordered.”

Families recommended by health officials for the program are screened by Healthy Families. Those chosen for the program are offered the help of a family support worker.

Services provided can range from parenting lessons, to literacy classes, to health care and nutrition education, to coordinating with other agencies to help a parent find employment.

“The best time to have a family welcome you (a support worker) is when the child is born,” she said. “Everybody sets out to be a good parent, but if you don’t have the parenting skills, if your parents didn’t have the parenting skills, you need help.

“Babies don’t come with an instruction manual,” she continued. “We end up being that instruction manual.

“Our goal is to get in and support the family, work with the family,” said Ms. Hutcheson.

“Our major goal is to help that mother and father become the best parents they can be,” she said.

Each child got a new helmet to go with the bicycle. This volunteer is adjusting the fit.

“It’s amazing to work with a family that has not been very successful, and see the parents develop the skills,” she said.

“Our goal is to have children in the program ready for kindergarten so they will succeed in school,” she said.

While the program targets children from birth to age 5, the program includes the entire family so it also benefits older siblings.

The Healthy Families Project is funded through the Florida Ounce of Prevention Fund.

She said they have programs throughout the state.

The Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida is a private, nonprofit corporation that identifies, funds, supports and tests innovative programs to improve the life outcomes of children, preserve and strengthen families and promote healthy behavior and functioning in society, recognizing that the wisest money spent is on prevention.

This volunteer appears to be steadying the new rider.

Families enrolled in the program have a 95 percent success rate, with no child abuse or neglect, she said.

Tina Ortiz, program supervisor for the Healthy Families Project in Okeechobee County said Green Design is in the same building in Okeechobee with Healthy Families and the Green Design staff became interested in their program. Last year, Green Design helped with 10 bicycles for families in the program.

This year, Green Design asked Soundslinger (the company that puts on the Okeechobee Music Festival) to help.

Shaun Kogut of Green Design explained that his company is the architect for the music festival so he reached out to Soundslinger about the bicycle project. Soundslinger CEO Kevin Collinsworth was quickly on board, with Soundslinger not only acting as one of the sponsors, but also offering the use of the beautiful lodge and grounds at Sundance Trails for the Christmas party.

This little girls looks delighted to be on her new bike.

Mr. Kogut said when they sent out requests for donations about a month ago he was overwhelmed by the response.

“The sponsors were just fantastic,” said Mr. Kogut. “We just started this a month ago.”
He said the program grew from 10 bicycles in 2016 to 75 in 2017. Next year, the goal is to do something for every family in the program.

With enough funding to purchase 75 new bicycles, the Healthy Families staff chose the families that would benefit the most, and also made sure that each child in the family would be included and that the bikes would be the right sizes. Once the bikes were ordered, another big job required volunteer help to assemble the bicycles before the big day.

A little boy enjoying the sunshine and a new bike to ride.

First Baptist Church Youth Group and More 2 Life Youth Group, along with Mark and Cindy Brandel, served as Santa’s elves putting all of the bicycles together.

Children visited with Santa in the lodge. After the bicycles were unwrapped, the next step was a station where volunteers made sure the bicycle was properly adjusted for the child’s height, and that those who needed them were provided with training wheels.

Each child was also fitted with a bike helmet. Some of the kids jumped on the bikes and immediately sped off on the paved road in front of the lodge, taking advantage of the safe and spacious place to ride. Others needed a little help from parents and volunteers because they had never been on a bicycle before. More than one child came back to the lodge later in the afternoon to have the training wheels taken off.

Bicycle giveaway sponsors included: Mixon Real Estate; Mark Brandel, General Contractor; the B.R.A.T. Club; Okeechobee Wash Mart; Sumner Engineering and Consulting, Inc.: Raulerson Hospital; A Shaping Inc.; Okeechobee Air Conditioning and Refrigeration; Highland Pest Control Inc.: First Baptist Church Youth; Statewide Land Services; CenterState Bank; Okeechobee Urgent Care; Ashley and Chris Brishke; Jennifer Busbin; Terry Burroughs, Valuation Professionals, PLC: Mr. and Mrs. Kevin Collinsworth; Cary Pigman, CEECO; Tenniswood Dental; Eli’s Western Wear; Soundslinger; Green Design; East Coast Screenprinting; Domer’s; Seacoast Bank; Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office; and The Alarm Company.

A group photo showing the kids and volunteers.

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