Volunteers and kids at the 2015 Build-a-Bike event. Image courtesy of United Way of Southwestern PA.

It’s a thrill most adults can still remember: That first taste of independence that comes as a kid feeling the wind-in-your-hair sensation of pedaling around on your own two wheels.

We know that exercise helps kids improve their health and well-being. We know that learning to ride a bike can create a sense of accomplishment that can lead to believing more achievements are possible. But not every Pittsburgh child has that opportunity. In households where the adults are faced with the decision to pay the rent or put dinner on the table, bikes and other fitness equipment don’t even enter the picture.

The United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania wants to change that. This June, it will host its fifth annual Build-a-Bike event, which aims to encourage healthy physical activity among underserved kids in the Pittsburgh area.

Kids who attend Build-a-Bike are often engaged with other United Way programming, which takes “a year-round, holistic and preventative approach to help local youth reach their full potential,” according to Kristi Burry, director of United Way’s fitUnited initiative.

“For many of the kids, it’s their very first bike,” says Burry. “The event is also a great opportunity for kids to work with caring adults who are good role models.”

Here’s how it works: Those role models are a mix of community volunteers and safety experts who will help 150 local children assemble a brand-new bike from scratch. The goal is to recruit between 375 and 400 volunteers from across the region — no small feat.

To help with that, lead sponsor Williams is supporting the effort with a $25,000 donation so that this year, all volunteer teams  (who paid a fee to participate in previous years) can participate for free. Interested in volunteering? Register now using the invitation code BAB2018 for the event, which is slated for 2 to 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 21 at Heinz Field’s UPMC Club Level 2.

According to Neil DiBiase, United Way’s vice president of workplace giving, Williams has a culture of giving that’s ideal for partnering with Build-a-Bike. “This year alone, Williams has contributed over $300,000 to United Way,” he says, “from individual employee donors, corporate contributions and funds raised at special events.”

In addition to giving kids a shiny new bike to take home, volunteers will get a chance to practice teamwork skills with their colleagues. They’ll also get to join children in STEM activities, help them pick out helmets and safety gear, and even help teach some kids how to ride their bikes.

Williams’ volunteers who have participated in the event since 2014 “often say that one of their favorite parts is seeing the kids’ faces light up when they wrap their hands around the handlebars and realize the bike they just helped assemble is theirs,” says Sheri Cramblit, a senior community relations specialist with the energy company.

But the best part, she adds, “is knowing that the kids will be able to explore new places and be healthier, because they’ve helped provide access to equipment the kids previously didn’t have.”

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.