CJ Cook put it best. “This is sooooo cool,” said the expressive 10-year-old. He’d just received a new bike, custom fitted to his husky frame, from a group of Aerojet executives he’d never met.
On Wednesday, Dec. 7, 120 Aerojet managers and lead engineers became overqualified bicycle mechanics for an afternoon, assembling new bikes for 24 kids from the Placerville Boys and Girls Club at the Marriott Hotel in Rancho Cordova.
The project was the brainchild of Aerojet’s director of organizational development and training, El Dorado Hills resident Sharon Clark, who used the bikes as a team-building exercise for company leaders flown in from around the country.
The executives honed their cooperation and communication skills while helping out some less fortunate kids.
Each team assigned one member to be chief mechanic, the caveat being that he or she would be blindfolded. The others were not allowed to touch the tools.
Only two other team members, mostly “hands on” engineers and program managers, were allowed to touch the bike, but each had one arm tied behind their back.
A real bike mechanic was on hand to make sure the results were safe to ride.
The teams were told that the fruits of their labor would be donated to the El Dorado County Western Slope Boys and Girls Club. What they didn’t know was that the recipients would show up in person at the end of the day to receive their bikes.
The kids were also kept in the dark. “We didn’t know what was going on until we walked in the room,” said a beaming CJ.
Each of the 24 hand-picked kids was given a number and told to find the balloon with their number on it. They entered the room to a round of applause and, to their surprise, discovered bikes attached to those balloons.
The ensuing smiles illuminated the already bright hotel meeting room; the mutual good feelings warming a room already overheated from the efforts of the Aerojet leaders.
The kids were also given age and gender appropriate helmets, plus NASA backpacks full of Aerojet-themed booty.
“We had no idea the kids would show up,” said Risk Management Director Bill Marlow, whose team built a bike for Bryan Cruz, 11, of Placerville.
Bryan was elated and a little overwhelmed. “I don’t know what to think,” he said, “But I love the bike.”
Aerojet Security Manager Kyle Frigo asked Bryan, “How many kids can say a real rocket engineer built their bike?” He was referring to Engineer Bryan Waltz, who served as a one-armed assistant in the assembly of Bryan’s bike.
Bryan took his new bike outside for a test spin, with his team of Aerojet leaders trailing behind. Unable to contain himself, risk manager Marlow made Bryan promise to always wear his helmet while riding.
Aerojet Programmer Winnie Wu was also on the team. Watching him successfully navigate the Marriott sidewalk on his new bike, she deemed the inaugural ride a “successful launch.”
Boys and Girls Club staff herded the already excited kids down the hall for bowls of ice cream and endless toppings. The resulting sucrose-fueled energy might have powered one of the Aerojet’s booster rockets.
The hard part, said Club Executive Assistant Gingerlei Afuola, was picking just 24 kids. “We tried to pick kids we knew needed a bike,” she said, adding that the Placerville club is experiencing record attendance, including one afternoon last week when a whopping 197 kids showed up.
The Aerojet leaders were left to reflect on the experience. “This here is what Christmas is all about,” said a clearly moved Marlow.
The El Dorado County Western Slope Boys and Girls Club serves more than 400 kids daily from four locations. The clubs are open from 2 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and provide activities aimed at enhancing character and citizenship, academic success and healthy lifestyles.
For more information visit bgce.org.