Neicee Flint was fighting back tears as she hugged people before they wheeled the bikes off the parking lot at the Gator Lounge, where she works as a manager.
The families gathered Wednesday night were picking up brand-new bicycles for children to surprise them Christmas morning. Betty William picked up a bike for her 5-year-old grandson, who lives with her.
“It means a lot to me,” William said smiling as the neon-colored bike was loaded into her car.
A brand-new bike was on her grandson’s Christmas list this year. William joked she was going to have to sneak it into the house so he wouldn’t see it until the time was right. It went along well with Flint’s plan to have family pick up the bikes at the bar so the children could have a surprise under the tree.
“I remember when I was a child and when I got my bicycle. And what it meant to me to see that sparkly, brand-new bicycle Christmas morning. And it means more than what they’re getting right now. Christmas morning under the tree from Santa Claus. That means everything,” Flint said.
Thanks to donations from customers, The Gator Lounge and Flint, with help from her family and coworkers, distributed 67 bikes to families. Flint said they chose families that were in need whether they were customers of the bar or families that customers recommended to them.
William referred to herself as a regular customer at the Gator Lounge on Tamiami Trail.
“I come here a lot, everyone knows me,” she laughed.
Sure enough, Flint passed William the bike designated for her grandson, calling her by her first name all the while. But after working at the bar for 15 years, she was on a first-name basis with many people who walked up to the parking lot Wednesday night, whether they were picking up a bike or not.
It was the first year for the bike drive, but it’s certainly not the first time the bar and its customers have found ways to give to children around the holidays.
Flint said in previous years they’ve done an “adopt a family” program and last year they organized a toy drive that donated to All Children’s Hospital.
That’s when Flint decided to make a goal of giving away 100 bikes in 2016 for Christmas. Though she didn’t quite hit her goal, she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of donations and thankfulness from the families who received the bikes.
“It’s amazing we have a great family here. It’s not just the local bar, we are a family. It’s amazing,” Flint said.
The success of Wednesday’s event was “overwhelming” to Flint, who said seeing the approximately 25 families take the bikes home meant the world to her.
“It’s a step up from the year’s previous. ... I’d really love to see their faces Christmas morning, but that’s OK,” Flint said.
In addition to the bicycles, coupons for free Slurpies and knitted hats with Minion designs, from the popular “Despicable Me” movies also were handed out. The hats were made by Chris Sardegna, who donated them as another gift for children receiving bikes.
Any bikes left over at the end of the list of designated families are being donated to Manatee’s Operation Troop Support for military families, Flint said.