Over the holidays, a charity project that a SEPTA employee started nine years ago rolled past a mighty milestone: It had donated its 1,000 bicycle to Philadelphia-area kids in need.
Restoring and giving away so many bikes was not what Chris Guinan and his family expected to do, back in 2011, when they tuned up and donated five bicycles that had been collecting dust in the garage.
“Over the last nine years,” said Guinan, 62, who recently retired from SEPTA, “it kind of escalated into something that took on a life of its own.”
Their initial good deed did not go unnoticed.
Guinan’s SEPTA co-workers and, in time, those of his son, Christian, and daughter, Lauren, — who are also SEPTA employees — started giving the Guinans used bikes to fix up for donation to deserving kids and adults. Eventually, even SEPTA management got into the mission, donating unclaimed bikes from the agency’s lost-and-found department.
Just before Christmas, the Guinans’ family charity donated its 1,000th bicycle to a local nonprofit. Over the years, their bike donations have gone to organizations like Shriners Hospital for Children, Intercultural Family Services of West and South Philadelphia, and Congreso de Latinos Unidios. Periodically, the Guinans have also supplied bikes to one-time causes, like the Hurricane Sandy relief project organized by Holy Family University.
Their most recent delivery was last month, to Congreso, a Latino community agency in North Philadelphia. Right in time for the winter holidays, the bikes went to students and families associated with Congreso’s Family Entitlement Center, its parenting classes, and its after-school programs. Some also went to students in Congreso’s GED program as an economical means of transportation.
“We were really excited to be able to partner with the Guinan family,” said Julia Rivera, Congreso’s vice president of external affairs. “It was a pleasant surprise for many of our families, because it was during the holiday season. It was perfect timing, especially given the challenging year that we’ve had.”
Meanwhile, the Guinans credit SEPTA with consistently having their backs on their wheels endeavor.
“If it wasn’t for SEPTA, this really would not be in existence,” said Chris, who said that about 70% of the distributed bicycles have come via the agency or its employees. SEPTA has also helped the Guinans’ bike project win public awareness and support over time at press events and through company newsletters.
Even SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards has donated bikes from her own family.
“One of the things I noticed right away when I arrived at SEPTA was the generosity of our employees,” said Richards, who took over the agency a year ago. “From raising money for breast cancer awareness, to food drives to help local families, to holiday toy drives, to spring clean-up projects — when our city and region have a need, SEPTA employees are there to help. What Chris Guinan has built is a great example of the generosity of SEPTA employees and how much they care about the communities we serve.”
As word has spread about the program, donations have come from the greater community. The Guinans have even travelled to the Poconos and New York to pick up bikes.
But above all, the bicycle project is very much a Guinan family affair, their own labor of love that spans from Chris to his wife Cindy; their daughter Lauren, 30, a clerk at Suburban Station; son Christian, 27, a SEPTA mechanic; and even granddaughter Sophia, age 9, Lauren’s daughter. The backyard of the family’s Northeast Philly home has been known to accommodate up to 100 bikes at a time.
“Right now, it looks like something out of that old TV show, ‘Sanford & Son,’” Chris quipped.
But he wasn’t complaining.
“It’s really important to us that we continue this,” he said. “We couldn’t turn our backs on this at this point in time.”
Everyone in the family contributes to the project, using Chris’ truck to retrieve donated bikes. Chris and Christian fix the bikes — about 125 per year — in their spare time. Cindy helps with community outreach and fund-raising. Lauren is an ace at bargaining for good prices for supplies. And both Guinan offspring promote the project on social media to increase public awareness and keep the bike donations coming. If the project gets bigger — and it very well may, Chris said — they may turn it into a nonprofit to get more financial support. Currently, they finance the operation on their own and through GoFundMe.
But this is the time of year that the Guinans get to take a little breather, kind of like Santa’s elves do after the big Christmas rush. Sure, bikes come in all year long, and the Guinans give them out as they go. But the activity ramps up when the weather warms, and kids want to pedal, and gets more intense as the winter-giving holidays draw near. That’s when the Guinans are the busiest, churning out bikes for kids who’d otherwise have nothing to ride.
Maybe that’s why, Chris said, after dropping off a bunch of completed bikes at an agency, he experiences an odd feeling of guilt.
“When you leave, no matter how many bikes you leave, it’s just never enough,” he said. “There’s just always one more kid out there that’s still waiting.”
That’s kind of where granddaughter Sophia comes in. She likes helping out with the bikes — wiping them down, painting them, doing something to bring happiness to other kids. When her school and soccer friends come over, they want to get in on the act, too. Helping out other kids feels like fun to them.
And that makes Chris happy.
“I get satisfaction out of it because, as a father, it feels like it shows I did something right,” he said.
The smiles of Sophia and her friends, as they help, look just like the smiles on the faces of the kids who receive the bikes the Guinans have fixed, he said.
“To me, that gives us cause to continue doing this.”