In Alex Cooks’ restaurant, doused in the mouth-watering aroma of Southern-style barbeque, Santa’s helpers have been busy for the last 364 days.
Since December 26, 2010, Santa’s four assistants - Alex and Aimee Cooks, Elizabeth Brennan and Karen Millas - have been busy collecting their lists and checking them twice to make sure that the bike wishes of needy kids will be granted.
Nearly a full year later, with their bike collection amassed, it'll be just a few days before Alex’s Xmas for Kids will begin distribution to local elementary schools.
It all began in 1999 when Alex, owner of Alex’s Southern BBQ, 5362 W Village Drive, purchased 10 children’s bicycles about two weeks before Christmas. As word got out about what he was doing, he received so many donations that he was able to give away 182 bicycles.
“I told them I was going to find 10 kids and donate the bikes,” explained Cooks. “People started asking if they could help. I put a fishbowl on the counter and people started dropping money in. Every time I would get forty dollars, I would go out a buy a bike. That’s how the foundation got started.”
Cooks said he has personal reasons for starting the foundation.
“I was one of 10 kids. My parents didn’t have money go out and buy a bicycle, so I didn't get a bike," he said. "Every child needs a bike.”
Since its inception 12 years ago, Cooks has donated over 11,000 new bikes to underprivileged children throughout the community identified by local elementary school guidance counselors and principals.
The collection process is year-round, ending December 24 and restarting December 26.
“Alex’s Xmas for Kids Bike Program has helped bring smiles to our kids at Lake Magdalene Elementary throughout the holiday season for years,” said Ashley Martin, guidance counselor at the school. “Their generosity is astounding, and we are so fortunate to have this organization in our community.”
With a request for 900 bikes coming in this holiday season from local schools throughout Tampa Bay, Alex is hoping that in a depressed economy, with charitable donations on the decline, supply will meet demand.
“Numbers are up and the funds are down,” said Cooks. “We go and purchase the bikes on faith. I have my fingers crossed. Donations are slower this year, but every year we end up supplying all the kids with bikes.”
Cooks credits the generosity of his BBQ restaurant patrons for allowing him to fulfill the long list of bike requests.
“It’s the little old ladies who come through and drop their change in the bucket, or those who give their dollar every time they come through the door," he said. "Before long, you’ve bought a bike. Every penny counts. Every dime goes to buying a bicycle.”
Cooks’ ultimate goal is to keep the magic of Santa Claus alive.
“The schools pick up the bikes and then contact the parents so they can present them to the kids at Christmas,” explained Cooks. “Just knowing that there are kids waking up Christmas morning with nice new bicycles under the tree ... that’s the most gratifying part.”
To learn more about Alex's Xmas for Kids or to donate, contact 813-269-0050.