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St. Charles girl raises thousands to help kids with disabilities get bikes
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

"I want to see how happy the kids are when they get their bike," 10-year-old Riley Christensen said Wednesday. The St. Charles youth raised more than $6,000 in nearly two months to buy special modified bikes for children with physical disabilities.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/24/2009 12:06 AM

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Instead of penning her own Christmas list and checking it twice, Riley Christensen is making a holiday wish come true for three little girls she never met.

The 10-year-old St. Charles fifth-grader will deliver three new adaptive bicycles today to the homes of each child - all of whom have a special need - just in time for Christmas.

"It'll be the best day of my life," Riley said. "They'll be so happy."

Riley raised more than $6,000 after writing a letter to about 75 people on her family's annual Christmas card list asking them for help.

The recipients of the special bicycles are a 15-year-old St. Charles girl with cerebral palsy, a 5-year-old Geneva girl with a rare genetic disorder, and a 3-year-old West Chicago child with spina bifida.

Riley, who attends Wild Rose Elementary School, became inspired before her father's 45th birthday while watching her mother shop online for a new bicycle for him, days before Halloween.

As Lynn Christensen checked out a Web site for The Bike Rack in St. Charles, she and Riley began watching a video about Project Mobility. One of the family-run store's owners, Hal Honeyman, started the organization about six years ago to create modified bikes for people with disabilities, including veterans and children.

The video shared many of their personal stories.

"(Riley) had tears coming down her face," Lynn Christensen said. "She said, 'You know what? I'm buying one of those kids a bike.' She had such a determined look on her face. This was something she really wanted to do."

There was just one problem. The adaptive bikes cost $2,000 to $4,000 each, depending on the rider's special need. The next morning, while out sick from school, an undeterred Riley sat down and penned her letter on a sheet of lined paper.

She asked her mom to type it up, but Lynn Christensen thought Riley's own handwritten plea - in a fifth-grader's spelling and grammar - might be more effective.

"Everyone spends so much money on Christmas," Riley wrote. "Maybe your family can spend a little less on Christmas and help me buy a kid with cerebral palsey (sic) a bike for Christmas."

Her mother was right.

That first day, three donations were waiting for Riley in the family's mailbox when she stepped off her school bus. Word continued to spread. Even strangers contributed after hearing the story. Donations from across Chicago's suburbs and Arizona, California, Michigan and Missouri came in within two months.

"When I saw the letter, I was surprised," said her father, Jeff Christensen. "It was probably the greatest gift I had ever received - to realize the amount of empathy that came from my child. I felt like it was my own greatest achievement, and I hadn't even done anything."

Riley's original goal was to buy one bike. But thanks to all the donations and extra help from The Bike Rack owners, three children will get a special holiday surprise. Honeyman said he knows of a few other local children he'd like to help should the fundraising efforts continue.

As for Riley, a budding gymnast who loves art, she hasn't given much thought to her own Christmas present. She has her own bike, though she's outgrown it. She wanted to save money for an iPod Touch but doesn't want to ask anyone since they already gave to her cause.

Riley said there's a special gift, or life lesson, she gleaned from the experience.

She said: "Anyone can make a difference."

To contribute to Riley's cause, and read her letter, visit projectmobility.org. A check in the name of "Project Mobility" also may be mailed to The Bike Rack, 2930 Campton Hills Drive, St. Charles, IL 60175.