Mick Polly was in the garage outside his home in the small coal-mining community of Whitesburg, Kentucky, when a young neighbor boy with bike trouble stopped and asked him for help to repair a chain that had slipped off its gears.
Polly could see the damage was far worse than a simple slipped chain. “It had busted all the gears,” Polly tells PEOPLE.
“I didn’t have a clue about fixing bikes,” Polly says. But he promised to do what he could, and he went on Facebook to ask around for a replacement tire.
The town’s former police chief saw his post and showed up with two used bikes, and Polly took parts from those two to make one new ride for the boy. He then learned that the boy’s little sister, who was still riding a bike too small for her size, could use a new bike too.
“Next thing I know, it starts to steamroll,” he says.
As word spread that Polly was in the bike repair and donation business around economically depressed Letcher County (pop. 24,000), the parade of used bikes to his doorstep grew. So did humble requests and quiet referrals to give away wheels to kids in need.
Since that first repair in 2011, Polly, 52, who runs a beer-and-tobacco store called Mick’s Place, has put 622 bikes in the hands of others, with one simple goal: “It makes me feel good just to get kids off the couch,” he says.
“Mick is a local hero,” says Melissa Sturgill, a former case manager with Kentucky River Community Care, who worked with Polly to provide several bikes to families.
“In this area where coal mining has declined and a lot of families struggle to make ends meet monthly, a lot of children do without basic necessities, not to mention they don’t have luxury items such as a bike,” says Sturgill. “If it weren’t for Mick, there would be a lot of children in Letcher County without bikes.”
Polly is quick to share credit. Donations have come from friends – one donated 20 brand-new bikes for giveaway – and cash and other contributions from civic groups and local businesses have fueled the effort and outreach.
“This is a community effort,” he says. “People throughout all of southeast Kentucky have helped.”
But the roots still trace back to Polly, whose white beard and cushy midsection called to mind another figure for 7-yearold Austin Pressley, who picked out a red two-wheeler with Spider-Man stickers from Polly last year.
“Thank you, Santa,” Austin remembers telling Polly. “ ‘Cause he looks like him.”
“You could just see Mick’s face light up,” says Austin’s foster mom, Carol Baker, a longtime friend of Polly’s. “Mick’s exact words were, ‘The only thing I ask in return is that you do what your mom and dad tell you to do, and I get a hug.’ “
Polly occasionally asks for more. In addition to telling kids who get free bikes to respect those who are raising them, he wants to know they’re trying hard in school – and that sometimes has meant kids who want bikes must bring him a letter from their teacher, testifying to a student’s progress.
“That doesn’t mean you’ve got to have A’s,” he says. “You’ve just got to try. I would tell every one of them, ‘I know your teacher’ – which I didn’t – but they would come back withalettersaying,‘BrandonmadeaCthis week. Best grade he had all semester.’ Okay, here’s your bike, go pick one out.”
That nudge – and the reward of twowheeled freedom – can be invaluable to the recipients, says Sturgill. “A lot of the people in this area don’t seek to further their education, because they see working in the mines as good money and quick money,” she says. “Kids here need all the encouragement they can get to pursue their education. A lot of times they might not get that at home.”
But they get it from Polly, who remembers not having much when he was a child in a struggling coal-mining family.
“I grew up in the housing project, so we didn’t have a whole lot either,” he says. “It makes me feel so good inside to know that I’ve had the opportunity to help someone, that the good Lord has blessed me with the opportunity to do something like this.”
“It’s kept me grounded, and it’s brought back tons of memories,” he adds. “The people that come to me are really the people that can’t afford a bike for their child. I really don’t have a screening process, but I can tell when they walk up on the porch. Plus, I know many of the people; whoever I’m not related to, I live next door to.”
“I see the joy in kids’ faces,” he says. “Some of them, it’s been the first bike they’ve ever owned. Maybe we can get them to bond with other people. Two of them riding a bike together, they can become friends, maybe lifelong friends.”
As for Polly, his need for speed prevents him from riding with them.
“I ride a Harley,” he says.