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Dealer uses bikes 'to help convert hopelessness,' change kids' lives

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LIBERTY, Texas—“Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas” didn't start out as anything special when it began nearly five years ago.

All that 2007 Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award winner David Milam Jr., and friend Mike Koen wanted to do was give away some bicycles Mr. Milam had left over from a “Buy four tires and get a bicycle” promotion put on by Michelin North America Inc. and American Car Care Centers (ACCC) Inc.

The two had been chatting inside Mr. Milam's retail tire dealership on the main highway in this rural Texas town when Mr. Koen innocently asked, “What's the deal on these bicycles?”

As they talked, Mr. Koen suggested they get together and give them away to some needy kids.

Their idea began to gel. Mr. Milam contacted other ACCC dealers and gathered remaining bicycles left over from the tire promotion. He and his crew at Milam Discount Tire Co. put them together.

Next they needed a way to find some needy children. For that, they contacted the local schools, Liberty County Children's Protective Services and several churches asking them to pick some children and have them write letters to Santa Claus about why they “needed,” and “not wanted” a bicycle.

Mr. Milam, his wife Debra, and Mr. Koen and his wife Edwina read all the notes and selected those who would get a bike.

Many of the letters were tough to read: “I need a bike 'cause my daddy hurt his back” or “My daddy is in jail.”

“You can't imagine,” Mr. Milam said.

That first year, Messrs. Milam and Koen provided 55 bicycles to needy children in Liberty County, located about 50 miles northeast of Houston.

They delivered the bikes themselves, riding in an ambulance, with one of Mr. Milan's employees dressed up as Santa Claus. At the last minute, realizing there likely would be other siblings present, the two also arranged to have some toys available for distribution.

Nearly five years later this simple and generous idea has blossomed into a massive annual charity program in Liberty County, involving hundreds of volunteers, the support of the local Wal-Mart store, which provides the bicycles at a discounted rate, other businesses, the local radio station and numerous government agencies, all under the direction of Messrs. Milam and Koen.

In 2006, Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas gave away 1,500 bicycles, 100 tricycles and more than 4,000 toys to needy children in Liberty County who wrote letters to Santa Claus about why they needed a bicycle.

The program has grown so large that it is now held at the county fairgrounds where the recipients come to pick up their bicycles. A committee, including Messrs. Milam and Koen, reads the letters and picks the recipients.

Last year, those selected and their families got their pictures taken with Santa or Mrs. Claus, who were flown in by a Life Flight helicopter. All siblings received toys and about 7,000 meals of hot dogs and Frito pie (Fritos with chili sauce and cheese on top), and cold and hot drinks were served.

“It's amazing how many people have volunteered to get involved with this thing in just three or four years,” said Liberty County Sheriff Greg Arthur, whose own department has been a part of it since the first year. Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas “would not and could not work but for the effort (David's) putting into it,” said Mr. Koen, executive director of Liberty County Emergency Medical Services Inc.

He describes his friend as not only a good promoter but a real go-getter. While the two are considered partners in the organization, “David dedicates a lot more time to it,” he said. He raises most of the money, about $65,000 last year, which is done through fund raisers such as golf and skeet shooting tournaments, and by soliciting businesses and individuals.

But Mr. Milam is not just a behind-the-scenes guy. He's involved in all aspects of the program, from assembling the bikes to serving food.

“He's a big backbone and heart of this organization,” Mr. Koen said.

For his efforts with Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas and other charitable and volunteer activities on behalf of others, Mr. Milam has become the 14th recipient of the Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award. The honor is presented annually by Tire Business to a tire dealer or retreader who is making a difference in his or her community through volunteer and charitable activities.

Mr. Milam was chosen for the award by judges from The Volunteer Center in Akron, a United Way organization dedicated to helping and promoting volunteerism in local communities.

In selecting him, the judges cited Mr. Milam's co-founding of Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas and his overall dedication to helping young people. They also were impressed with the way he has involved and collaborated with other city and county organizations, including the Liberty County Children's Protective Services, Liberty County EMS, Liberty County Fire Department, Liberty City Police Department, Liberty County Sheriff's Department, and others.

Mr. Milam, 55, was honored Oct. 30 during the Tire Industry Association's annual convention in Last Vegas, where he received an engraved medal and a $1,000 donation from Tire Business to the charity of his choice. This year the money is going to support Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas.

Soft spot for children

Mr. Milam is not shy in acknowledging he has a soft spot in his heart for children. He'll tell you that and so will most everyone else who knows him in Liberty County.

Maybe it's that he was adopted at age 3, and by 13 was out on his own living in state boys' homes where, as he put it, “I got a chance to really see abused kids.”

Whatever the reason, Mr. Milam has made helping children a priority in his life.

And it doesn't matter if they come from rich or poor families.

“No one knows what goes on behind closed doors,” he said.

The pictures and plaques on the showroom walls of his dealership tell some of the story. There you'll see photos of sports teams he has sponsored, citations from various civic organizations and thank-you letters from senior citizens groups, the local schools and other community organizations he has volunteered with, helped and supported over the years.

“David is one of those guys, he gets things done,” Sheriff Arthur said. “We're always running into projects and stuff in the county where we need help and, in fact, I feel guilty sometimes calling, because he always jumps in.”

But given the choice, it's with young people where he's most likely to direct his efforts.

“David loves children and will do anything and everything possible to help children,” said LaVonna Templeton, office manager for Liberty County EMS.

He gets hit up a lot for donations, and he likes to be involved in what he is donating to, she said. Whether it's helping with the high school after prom events, graduation or sports teams, “they know they can count on Mr. David. He never says no.”

Mary Anne Campbell, president of the Liberty-Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said much the same about Mr. Milam. He has helped clubs, kids and organizations all over the county and especially southern Liberty County, she said.

Even before starting the bikes for kids project, “David was still a doer in the community. A person that, if someone needed something, they would go and ask him and he would help,” she said.

Ms. Campbell mentioned the decline of mom-and-pop businesses in many communities and the rise of large corporations and the impact this is having on volunteerism and charitable giving.

“He doesn't just take out of it for himself, he gives back to the community,” she said.

Others have recognized Mr. Milam's contributions, as well. Earlier this year, Liberty Masonic Lodge No. 48 awarded Mr. Milam the Community Builder Award. The honor is given to non-Masons who have distinguished themselves through service to the community, to the local, state or national government, to their church or synagogue, or to humanity.

John Hebert, a local businessman and treasurer of Liberty County Children's Protective Services Board, cited how Mr. Milam has supported this organization. During National Adoption Month in Texas, for example, when a state judge comes to Liberty to preside over the adoption of children from the county, Mr. Milam provides bicycles and toys for them as well as a party, Mr. Hebert said.

This is important to Mr. Milam.

“I want them to have something they can call their own before they are legally adopted into their new home,” he said.

Why bikes?

So why give away bicycles?

A promotional brochure for Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas puts it this way:

“We use bicycles as a simple, yet profound tool to help convert hopelessness, building up children's spirits and helping them develop the confidence to succeed. We're changing lives for the better, one bike at a time.” Mr. Milam provides a slightly different take on this.

“It allows transportation and transportation is important,” he said, especially if a child is stuck in one place and has no means of getting to where something might be a little bit better, or where he or she could play with a better group of friends. “That's one of the biggest reasons I chose bicycles.

“It gives them the access to get out of an environment, even if it's two blocks or three blocks away. (It gives them) the opportunity to ride a bicycle to school or the opportunity to go to school.”

And it does give hope, too.

“If they don't have anything and all of sudden they have a brand new shiny bicycle, their self esteem goes up a little bit. If you can reach enough of the poor and they all have a good Christmas, it puts them on a higher level.”

Thank-you letters show this to be true.

“On Dec. 22, 2006, God sent us angels,” one family wrote. “I think of you all every day. Thank you is so inadequate to say to those who have given back hope to a family in distress. God bless you all. Thanks for making a difference.”

Just as Mr. Milam has his reasons for why he chose bicycles, he's also particular about the toys the organization gives away. He won't provide things like DVD players or CDs, something parents might take away or pawn. Nor does he provide toys that can be used indoors.

What he likes are things that a “child can get the most out of and adults the least out of.”

Following this line of reasoning, Mr. Milam also is working on a plan to provide a full year of school supplies to those receiving bicycles.

Doing this, he said, would make it easier on the parents who would not be burdened with this expense.

Involving the county

Mr. Milam's dream for Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas is to extend the program throughout Liberty County.

Covering 1,300 square miles, it is the fifth-largest county in the U.S. but has only about 85,000 residents. Like many large sparsely populated areas, though, it has an overabundance of people who are needy. “You either seem to be doing OK in Liberty County or you're struggling,” Mr. Milam said.

In addition to Liberty, a city of 12,000, the county has two other large communities, Dayton and Cleveland, but because of their distance from each other, each entity tends to operate separately.

He sees Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas as a way of bringing these communities closer together at least once a year.

“We try to get everybody involved,” he said.

So far he seems to be succeeding.

Besides the record number of children writing letters to Santa, the 2006 event drew hundreds of volunteers from throughout the county, and he received the support of many of the county's civil service departments as well as the local ROTC.

“This is one of those things that draws the communities together,” Sheriff Arthur said.

Looking ahead

As he prepares for the 2007 version of Liberty County Bicycles for Christmas, Mr. Milam has set for himself another goal.

He wants to revamp Children's Protective Services (CPS) so that it can care for more foster children. His idea is to build a large facility for boys and girls similar to the boys' homes where he grew up.

These homes were Christian-based and government-funded, he said, and provided residents with the basics:

“You get up and make your bed, eat your breakfast and go to school, come home, do your chores, do your homework, spend some free time, go to bed and start over,...the way it should be in a working world.”

Mr. Milam envisions developing a large complex on at least 100 acres that would have 40 to 50 homes, each capable of housing up to 20 children.

He'd like to see this happen in the next five years and said he believes there is support for his idea.

“If God blesses me and I can do more, I am going to revamp CPS, and the only way to revamp CPS is to have more room for foster children,” he said. “That's their main problem. They have too many children and not enough adoptive parents.”

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