Lakewood Ranch Herald

Wheelin’ to help the homeless get around

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Christy Comito, Janie Wolfe and Jerry Byrne departed Main Street on Saturday morning on bicycles to help the homeless.

They were joined by about 200 others on what is called the Tour de Ranch.

The bike rides of 50, 25 and 4.3 miles were aimed at raising money to buy bicycles for the homeless.

“We normally do a 50-mile ride on Saturday anyway, so we figured we’d come out and support the charity,” said Comito. “I think it’s important.”

It accomplished all of their goals, said Byrne.

“It makes sense,” he said. “We like to ride our bikes around the Ranch. It’s great.”

Judi DeWalt, who owns a clothing shop on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch and at St. Armands Circle, got the idea for a community bicycle ride earlier this year. As part of the creative team for Suncoast Partnership To End Homelessness, an agency that pools resources to help the homeless, DeWalt was trying to come up with ideas to raise money after state and local funding for the local agency had been cut.

She decided Tour De Ranch could be money raised by bicyclists and used to purchase bicycles for the homeless.

“We thought what better way than to have the bikers support it,” said DeWalt.

In Manatee and Sarasota counties, there are about 8,000 homeless people, with about 2,500 of them being school children, according to DeWalt.

Transportation for the homeless is important, and bicycles can be their only means of transportation, she said.

“It gives them independence,” said DeWalt.

DeWalt is hoping the inaugural Tour De Ranch will raise at least $10,000 to purchase bikes, because there is such an enormous need. The pre-party auction on Friday evening raised about $4,000.

All of the money raised from Tour De Ranch entry fees and a pre-party auction will go directly towards purchasing bicycles, helmets, bike lights, and bicycle locks for the homeless, said DeWalt. She hopes to find a place to buy the bikes and accessories at cost, so she can maximize the funds and provide good transportation for the homeless. Distribution details are still being worked out, she said.

“I want to get the all aluminum kind so they don’t rust, because they are outside a lot,” said DeWalt. “We have to get them with lights and baskets because they carry everything they own with them.”

Tour De Ranch also gave organizers a chance to bring attention to homelessness, said Richard Martin, executive director for Suncoast Partnership To End Homelessness.

With the recent downturn in the economy and people losing their jobs, the homelessness scenario is “playing out like dominoes,” and homelessness has become overwhelming for the local communities.

For every five people that call, agencies may only have enough resources to help one.

“It’s a way to engage it; bring it to the community,” said Martin. “We’re trying to make a difference.”

Larger numbers of people are facing eviction and foreclosure than ever before, forcing families and individuals to find temporary living arrangements with relatives or friends until they can get back on their feet.

“We’re folks and they are, too,” said Martin. “They’re our mothers and our fathers. They’re our brothers and sisters. That’s who the population is.

Lakewood Ranch Main Street business owners saw Tour De Ranch as an opportunity to help the homeless, because the “face of homelessness has changed,” said Don Baugh, president of the Lakewood Ranch Merchants Association and owner of Vanessa Fine Jewelry.

The Association donated money to help pay for the pre-party activities, breakfast, lunch, t-shirts, goodie bags, and water bottles for ride participants.

“In the current economy, your neighbor could be homeless,” he said. “If we can do anything to give people a hand up, let’s do it.”