How Can One Person Make the Difference in the Lives of Foster Children?

Video Transcription:

Jim Dodson: Smiling's a big factor here.

Kathy Downs: Okay.

Jim Dodson: People like friendly faces.

Kathy Downs: It comes pretty natural to me.

Jim Dodson: Hey, good morning. It's the Florida Bike Guy. So how does one person change the lives of over a thousand children? You know, this is a wonderful story of a person with an idea who acted upon it. Meet Kathy Downs, Kathy say Hello, how you're doing.

Kathy Downs: Hey!

Jim Dodson: So Kathy works as a full-time job, lives and works in the Orlando area, and tell us what you are doing as The Bike Fairy.

Kathy Downs: So I take donations of gently used bikes, in my garage we work on them, put new tubes, adjust breaks, new grips, whatever they need, and then those bikes are repurposed to foster children throughout Orange County.

Jim Dodson: Alright, so you are actually making this call from work this morning, right?

Kathy Downs: Yes, right.

Jim Dodson: You've asked your coworkers to hold down the conversation behind you until we finish

Kathy Downs: Yes

Jim Dodson: And I appreciate them, and I appreciate you doing that. So tell our viewers, how is is that you got started doing this? It's a pretty simple story.

Kathy Downs: So I became a volunteer advocate for children and that is to support the guardian at Litem Attorneys. I would take a case for 12 months, do the home visits, and be the child's advocate with how they are feeling, what their needs are, and communicating that to their guardian at Litem Attorneys, case workers, and the court system.

Jim Dodson: Okay. And how is it that you got started like with the bike giveaway?

Kathy Downs: So I'm a cyclist, and I think everybody should be on a bike, all of the time, quite honestly. I visited with a 9 year old girl. She was being housed with her grandmother. And I saw a bike in the garage, and it had a torn up seat, two flat tires, the chain and drag chain was really rusty, so I realized that she could use a better bike. I put a posting on the NextDoor app, and asked my neighbors "Did anybody have a bike that they wanted to donate to a 9 year old girl". Then I got 6. I told the other 5 people I've got a home for mine, but we've got well over a thousand children in dependency, I knew that at Legal Aid, we could find homes for those bikes. And then when Legal Aid realized I was somebody that could get bikes, I started getting special requests. A child that was maybe picked up by DCF who had a birthday the next day, things like that, and so the requests started coming in, my request out to the community started increasing, and this thing has taken on a life of its own.

Jim Dodson: So when did all of this begin? You've done this for a really short time.

Kathy Downs: Right, it started in April of 2017.

Jim Dodson: So how many bikes have you actually managed to repurpose and give away in the last 24 months?

Kathy Downs: Probably right around 1,600.

Jim Dodson: 1,600 bikes. This is you, are, and then tell me who is involved in this process. It's you, and I know you have a partner who works with you there.

Kathy Downs: Yeah, so Victor and I have switched our garage pretty much into a bike shop. It's a 3 car garage. We can sometimes get 1 car in there. There's repaired bikes, there's bikes to be repaired and looked at, you know, he picks up bikes, as do I. People drop off bikes to our place. When the kids come with foster parents, case workers, or attorneys, I get him in the garage, and he is making adjustments on seats, teaching kids how to use gears that they haven't used that sort of thing. Another big person in this effort is Dan Whitney. He used to own Lake Mary Bike Shop, he is an avid cyclist, used to race a lot. He's retired now, and he works on bikes all the time in the garage. I mean, he's just amazing. Bethany Barber is the director of the Guardian Ad Litem Program in Orange County. She actually happens to live in my neighborhood, I didn't know that when I first met her. And she organizes her staff for semi-annual events that we do. And just, you know, supports me in every way. Because I don't know who all of the foster kids are, but her office handles every one of those legal cases. And so I coordinate everything through her and her staff.

Jim Dodson: So did they come to you? Are you finding children who need bikes, or are they coming to you with the kids?

Kathy Downs: They come to me with the kids. So that was how the original part started. Then I met with one of the directors of Orange County Public Schools, Dr. Prince Laboo. And he then coordinated, and we would set up an evening every two weeks, the principals of every school in Orange County were invited to identify foster children in their schools. And he would come out to my house on a set night, and then the foster parents would bring the kids out, and the kids would be able to select their own bike. And then when in Bethany's office, and attorney or case worker identifies a child, they'll come on the weekend or after work one day and select a bike for their child. Sometimes they can bring the child with them.

Jim Dodson: So if you're doing 6, you're doing you've done 1,600 bikes, that's 800 bikes a year basically, you're giving, there's only 365 days in a year, so you're giving away almost 2 bikes a day. Sue, how are ya'? Sue Moe has checked in. Glad you joined us. So giving almost two bikes away a day, right? It sounds like there is a stream of people coming to you and Victor and Bethany and getting this done.

Kathy Downs: Yes, well we settled into two semi-annual events. One is held in December, and one of my clients, ConAir Industries, offers up a part of their warehouse and the Recyclery Group, which is another non-profit up along with that provides bikes to homeless and vets, and other organizations, they do the logistics of moving bikes from my garage to ConAir. And we typically have 200 to 250 bikes and then, you know, those bikes are given out. The influx of bikes was so great, that we also started doing one in June so that we can get kids on bikes over the course of the summer to enjoy. So it's, on those events, it's a lot going on.

Jim Dodson: So you're giving the biggest majority of them at your semi-annual events. Yeah.

Kathy Downs: Yes.

Jim Dodson: Okay.

Kathy Downs: The other thing that we do is when we have a group home that wants bikes for kids, it may be that there are 14 or 16 either boys or girls. I have to wait until I have enough adult sized bikes in whatever gender it is, and then the group home will come with a bunch of trucks because it's an all or nothing situation when we are supplying them.

Jim Dodson: So a lot of people, Kathy, maybe have heard of the foster system, but don't have any idea how it works or how large the issue is in Orange County. So why are kids in foster care, and why is this important?

Kathy Downs: Children enter the foster system as a result of abuse, abandonment, or neglect, and it's always as a result of a police action where children are removed from the home. And I can tell you, I read the cases, it's never good, it's never mild, it's always horrific to be honest. So kids are quickly removed, they will either go to a relative or they'll go to a foster family or they'll be taken to a group home. That's where they go. And then, in Orange County, the goal is within 12 months that permanency is established. That means either, the child is reunited back into the family and there's supervision and things are working, the parents are getting help, the kids are being, you know, looked after, or their parental rights can be terminated. Children are again permanently in the foster care system with foster parents, sometimes that means that they move around a number of times. Or they'll go to a relative, or several relatives, or a group home.

Jim Dodson: Right. Yeah, and so this is a traumatic event. I mean, these kids are living their life, they've been abused, abandoned, or neglected and then suddenly law enforcement swoops in, they are removed from the house and they don't get to take much of anything with them, in that situation, right?

Kathy Downs: Absolutely. They may be able to grab a couple of pieces of clothing. That's it. So even if the child had a bike, the bike is not going with them when they're removed. Many of them don't have a bike. They have, you know, I can tell you I meet kids who are 10, 12 years old who have never had a bike.

Jim Dodson: Right, yeah. I know we give away bikes to Rock Practice every year for Christmas, and these are- we're buying new bikes because I think it's incredible that you've continued to have a supply of used bikes, so these are not bikes you're buying. This is not an I budget process that you're going through.

Kathy Downs: No, no it's not at all. You know, if you think about your own personal family, kids outgrow bikes before they wear them out to a large extent. And so, you know, the smaller the bike, the more often it's being circulated. I also have retirees who have nice beach cruisers and mountain bikes and they're just not comfortable riding them anymore. So, you know, they're garage kept, they're in great shape, the- you know, when I'm taking bikes, I do say to people, "Look, I don't have a way to remove the rust" or if the bike is really beat up, "It's not appropriate for our kids." They're not second-hand kids getting what is perceived to be second-hand bikes. When the kids come, honestly, they have no idea they're not looking at 100% new bikes. That's what it feels like and looks like to them.

Jim Dodson: Right, right. Well I think, And talk about just the impression that a child has when someone like you, or those helping you, step forward and do something for them. Only, it's only for them, you know. It's something that they are getting special. How does that affect them?

Kathy Downs: Oh, I think it makes them feel like a kid again. It lifts the weight of the problems of all of the horrible things that have been happening to them. I think they believe, "Wow, you know, maybe people love me, maybe people care, maybe I matter". So it's, you know, it's a huge impact on the kids. And very often, when the kids go to maybe an aunt or an uncle or grandparents, there might be other kids in the family, and they have to borrow somebody's bike if they want to ride a bike. So this way, they've got their very own bike that we hope will travel with them to wherever they happen to go. The other thing that we do, and Bethany, and I discussed this at the beginning, is sometimes foster kids will go into a situation where biological children in the home, don't have their own bike.

Jim Dodson: Right.

Kathy Downs: When that happens, and they come out to pick out a bike, everybody leaves with a bike. The biological kids get a bike too.

Jim Dodson: Oh, okay, wonderful. So, I had a question. Describe sort of, you've touched on the foster process, how big of an issue is this in Orange County, and how big of an issue is it statewide in terms of the number of kids in foster care?

Kathy Downs: In Orange County alone we have, I've just gotten the statistics as of this week, 1,737 children in foster care in Orange County. In the state of Florida, there are over 37,000 children.

Jim Dodson: Yeah

Kathy Downs: In the foster system. It's a huge number.

Jim Dodson: It's a huge number, and what is your desire, you know we're doing this message today what is your desire to have someone do

Kathy Downs: So what I would like to see happen is through your viewership, I'd like every county in the state of Florida to have an advocate like me because I really am just coordinating. I'll be honest, Jim, people who have bikes that their kids aren't using absolutely are thrilled that those bikes are going into the hands of foster kids. They don't know how to reach those kids. They don't know where they are, and so the intermediary person who accepts the bikes, who has the relationship with the Guardian Ad Litem of that particular county and the cycling community, because that's where the mechanics come from, a person to put that together in every state, I think, you know, it would be an amazing thing in the state of Florida if the cycling community could come together and every foster kid within a couple of weeks of being pulled into dependency had a bike would be absolutely amazing.

Jim Dodson: Right, I applaud you, I am really touched by your willingness to volunteer, and you told me you and Victor have between 100 and 150 to 200 bikes in your garage at any one time.

Kathy Downs: Yeah

Jim Dodson: It is a real commitment, but I mean, it's amazing what you're doing, and I I just applaud you, and I would urge anyone who is listening to this today or may listen to it on the replay, get in touch with Kathy if you have questions. We're sharing your email, Kathy, if that's alright.

Kathy Downs: Sure

Jim Dodson: And, you know, her hope and her dream is that somebody out there, and even one person who will pick this up and do it in each of our counties would be a huge win. We're going to look at it here as well. Is there anything else you would like to leave our viewers with before we sign off?

Kathy Downs: The only thing I would also say is if you don't have a bike to share, there is a tremendous need for volunteer advocates for children. What that commitment is, you go through a State of Florida background check, and you will do monthly visits and a follow-up report, and you give a child in that 12 months, from the time that they're removed from the home until permanency is established. You know, if we have retirees, retired school teachers, nurses, social workers, but in reality, the only skill you need to help these kids is that you care about them. And, you know, think about it. If you have children of your own, you have parenting skills. You have instincts. So you could do that. And there's a real need.

Jim Dodson: Well, thank you very much. And, again, I appreciate, I applaud, I just, I hope that someone's heart is going to be touched who is watching this program or will watch it on the replay and that what you're doing can be replicated in other counties in Florida. I thank you so much, Kathy for joining us today.

Kathy Downs: Thanks for the forum.

Jim Dodson: And thank your coworkers for kind of holding down the volume, they've been real cooperative.

Kathy Downs: Okay, I will. Thank you so much.

Jim Dodson: This is Jim Dodson, The Florida Bike Guy. If I can ever help you with any kind of accident related injury or a question about biking, reach out to us at Kathy have a great day!

Jim Dodson
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A Florida injury lawyer, family man and avid cyclist who clients have trusted for over 25 years.