While Santa's helpers have historically been known to reside at the North Pole, Liz Bracken and her group of volunteers are proof that elves reside as far south as West Michigan. For three years, the Elves & More -West Michigan organization has been devoted to bringing children hope on two wheels. Since 2005, the nonprofit organization has donated nearly 4,000 bicycles and 800 treasure boxes to children in need across the greater Grand Rapids area.
This year, the group donated 1,000 bicycles to children in need along Madison Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids.
"Our mission is to bring hope to a child by providing a bicycle, which not only is a fun gift, but provides needed transportation to school, church, after-school activities and more," said Bracken, Elves & More-West Michigan president. "We gift an entire neighborhood to eliminate jealousy and promote a play group. It also provides a physical activity that can last a lifetime and is a first step toward independence."
This year, the nonprofit organization raised more than $65,000 in donations and more than 300 volunteers showed up to help build and prepare the bikes for donation.
The group was formed by Bracken and friends Mike Bartz and Marcia Borowka following a Christmas Eve newscast documenting an Elves & More group in Houston. After discussing the televised newscast, the three proceeded to establish an Elves & More group in West Michigan.
"Marcia and I set out to determine if there were any other programs planning to do this sort of thing," she said. "It turns out there wasn't, and even though we were being accused of being 'middle class white women trying to change the world' we ventured on."
The group spent the summer soliciting help from family, co-workers and friends. In September 2005, they ordered 400 bikes and delivered them, along with 100 treasure boxes containing items like diapers, board books, hats and mittens, to the Black Hills neighborhood on Christmas Eve.
The group continued their growing venture in 2006, delivering 900 bikes and 300 treasure boxes to another neighborhood in need. In 2007, the group gave out 1,600 bikes; nearly double the number of bikes given the year before.
Last year, and this year, the project has run over its share of speed bumps.
"Last year the bikes that were scheduled to be shipped on a boat hit a bridge in California," Bracken said. "Our challenge this year was the 10 plus inches of snow that fell the day before delivery. Even though the weather was cold, the sun was shining down on all, making for a happy day."
Bracken said she is grateful for the volunteer support the group receives, and in return, the volunteers seem to be happy with the opportunity to help.
"Another thing that inspires us to go through all this each year, in addition to helping the families, is providing an opportunity for the volunteers," she said. "They seem to get so much out of it. We continually hear things like 'Thank you so much for allowing me to help make a difference' and 'I used to hate the holidays but this makes me feel like I'm part of what Christmas is supposed to be about.' That really keep us going when the going gets tough."
Bracken said the organization is always looking for charitable partners.
"We'll definitely be back in 2009 as there are still many areas of need," she said. "We gather donations all year, so any fundraising events people want to host, or name Elves & More as a charity partner, helps tremendously."
For more information on Elves and More-West Michigan, visit www.elvesandmorewestmi.org.