A pickup truck full of caroling teenagers stops in front of a small home in San Antonio. Wearing red Santa hats, the teens pull bicycles out of the truck bed and head up a gravel path. At the door they are met by a smiling Antonia Torres and her three daughters, who are told that the bikes are from their father in prison.
“I knew he wouldn’t forget,” says Isabel Torres, 7. “I knew we’d still have Christmas!”
Clayton Lillard, 17, a senior at San Antonio’s Communication Arts Magnet High School, smiles. They don’t need to know that the bikes are actually from him or that he spent several afternoons with his friends—the Backyard Crew—refurbishing the bikes to make them shine like new. All the Torres children need to know is that they are loved at Christmastime.
Since 1998, Clayton and his friends have restored and given away more than 800 bicycles to San Antonio children through Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Ministry, an organization to help ensure that children of prisoners receive a present for Christmas.
Every weekend in November and December, teens gather in Clayton’s backyard to fix used, donated bikes. Armed with WD-40, Brillo pads, wrenches, spray paint cans, and screwdrivers, they make throwaways into bikes that can be ridden with pride. Clayton and his “crew” look forward to the December day when they will adorn the bikes with red bows, then present them to children with an incarcerated parent.
Though Clayton will be the first to tell you that his project is a lot of work, it also is “a great experience,” he says. “I never in my wildest dreams thought helping less fortunate kids would have been so rewarding. But when you see their smiles, and tears, you understand what giving is really all about.”
The bike idea originated when Clayton, then a fifth-grader, and his mother found two battered bikes in a rubbish heap and decided to fix them up. But he didn’t stop there. The youngster persuaded a local radio station to announce that he was looking for used bicycles. Soon other news media began reporting on his project. When dozens of bikes began being dumped on his front porch, he organized neighborhood friends to help him repair them. He and the crew refurbished 100 bikes that first year, in 1998.
To make the merriment more festive, six years ago Clayton began scheduling deliveries on his birthday, Dec. 23. He remembers his first delivery vividly. It was on his 11th birthday, and he dispensed bikes to a woman with eight children, ages 3 through 17.
“I could hear them shouting as they peddled down the street,” Clayton recalls. “Their mother was in tears, so grateful that all of them got a present.”
Heartfelt experiences like that have given him pause for considerable reflection. “A bicycle was a tremendous luxury and something I always took for granted,” he says. “People may think I’m doing something incredible for these children, but the truth is they do more for me than I do for them. They have shown me how to be grateful for the little things in life.”
Clayton and his mother still deliver some bikes themselves, but due to the huge number of recipients, most deliveries are made by Angel Tree volunteers who distribute the gifts in vans and trucks. The project also has impacted Clayton’s friends. In the beginning, the boys saw the project as simply something fun to do after school. Clayton even had to lure them with pizza and sodas in exchange for their labor.
“When I was growing up, my first bike meant a lot to me,” says crew member Ralph Chapa, 18. “In our neighborhood, not everyone could afford one. When we heard about Clayton, we wanted to help, so underprivileged kids could have the fun we did.”
Clayton’s humanitarian efforts have been recognized by national organizations and government agencies. In 2003, the San Antonio City Council awarded him its Distinguished Citizen Award. “For someone his age, to take on a task like this is very impressive,” says Councilman Art Hall. “He has a wonderful heart and he’s a wonderful role model.”
His charitable work, though, is not done for awards. “It’s all for the children,” Clayton says. “If I can give them a Merry Christmas, it’s an extra birthday gift for me.”