MORGAN HILL -- It all started with two bikes.
The daughter of Mark and Cindy Reuter used her baby-sitting money to donate a bicycle to a school toy drive benefitting Sacred Heart Community Service. Mom and dad decided to match Michelle's gift.
The next year, the Morgan Hill family gave five bikes. Then the Reuters got serious, contributing 56 bikes the following holiday. The year after that, when they asked acquaintances to join them, the total jumped to 140. Now, in its ninth year of making two-wheel holiday dreams come true for low-income kids, Reuter's Family & Friends is giving away 220 bikes so far this Christmas season.
They come in all sizes and designs. Little bikes for young girls decorated with Minnie Mouse and ribbons. Sporty BMX styles for boys. Bikes with training wheels. Mountain bikes.
"You just have to find a way to help kids," Mark Reuter said. "It's such a thrill when you hear them say: 'I've never had a new bike in my life.' It's a really special feeling."
Special enough that "the bike people" -- as they've come to be known -- willingly brave shopping hordes each year to take advantage of Black Friday sales. Then they transform their garage into an assembly line, putting together bike after bike.
"We never expected it to become this," Cindy Reuter added. "But now it's just pretty awesome."
The gift of a bike cannot be underestimated, said Sacred Heart's Matt King. They are the most sought-after present at their annual two-day Toy Box event, and this year the organization is hoping to distribute at least 500 bikes in a lottery system.
"Kids are always the happiest when they get a bike," said King, the community involvement coordinator. "It's just outside the means of the families who come to us. Bikes really give kids a sense of freedom. They're also a lasting gift. Often a child gets one and after two years, a younger sibling is using it."
Sacred Heart receives several large donations of bicycles, including 150 from Turning Wheels for Kids -- which is distributing 2,600 bikes this holiday season. Kristi and Rich Saso, a Los Gatos couple who have a business relationship with The Off Ramp bicycle store, are donating 40.
"People wait for hours for the chance to get their kids a bike," Kristi Saso said. "It's kind of an old-school gift when you think about it. It really encourages kids to go outside."
For the Reuters, their involvement began with a dinner-table discussion in 2004 when youngest daughter Michelle, then a freshman at Presentation High School, told them about how most of the presents lining the hallways for their annual Sacred Heart toy drive seemed smaller. She wondered: Wouldn't it be nice if they got some bikes? Her parents, who own MDR Machine Inc., struck a bargain. You give one and so will we.
They never stopped giving and their grass-roots philanthropy grew from there as the family recruited friends and business associates to join them -- reaching a high of 256 bikes one year. Giving bikes especially resonates with Mark Reuter, 56, who grew up in San Jose the eighth of 10 children and shared a bicycle with a younger brother.
"When I was on the bike in my neighborhood, time flew by," he said. "And when I wasn't, time dragged by. Riding a bike was our life as kids. Getting one is like a rite of passage."
This year they ordered about 80 online and spent Thanksgiving night buying another 135 or so at Wal-Mart stores in Morgan Hill and Gilroy. They're shopping style is different from most.
"We're like, 'We'll take that whole pallet, and we'll take that one over there, too,' " Mark Reuter said.
He estimates their little organization has spent about $8,000 so far this year. Saturday, they spent six hours assembling 220 bikes. While 96 were bound for several Morgan Hill-area charities, Tuesday morning was delivery day at Presentation as three flat-bed trailers containing 124 bikes pulled up to the all-girls school. Students lined up to walk or ride the bikes inside.
"Just think of all the lives that they've touched," Presentation Principal Mary Miller said. "It really is remarkable what they do."
Now, Miller added, the focus among the students is making sure they donate a helmet to go with every bike.
While the delivery is the high point for the Reuters, they also remember a more touching moment that came one Black Friday at about 2 a.m. Another shopper in line thanked them, telling of how two years earlier she and her husband had been laid off and their daughter received a bike from Sacred Heart.
"There are people who never thought they would ever need help, but they've received it," Mark Reuter said. "If this economy ever does really turn around, I think the people who have been helped during the downturn will be motivated to help others in the future. We just hope they will pay it forward."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.
Donations to Sacred Heart Community Service can be made at www.Sacredheartcs.org or send a check to SHCS, 1381 S. First St., San Jose, CA 95110. Designate that you want it directed to the holiday bike program.
To donate to Reuter's Family & Friends, make checks payable to Presentation High School. But send them to Mark and Cindy Reuter, P.O. Box 2311, Morgan Hill, CA 95038. All money goes directly to purchasing more bikes.
Donations for both are tax deductible.