A Masonic lodge is getting elementary school children excited about reading by offering them the chance to win new bikes.

Through the Masonic Fraternity’s Bikes for Books program, Marion McDaniel Lodge 65 is handing out two bikes apiece to each of the Amphitheater Unified School District’s 13 elementary schools.

Henry Spomer, the lodge’s public schools chairman, said it’s important to get kids to read as early as possible, and sees the bike program as a way to get them moving.

“Research we found said that if children don’t read well before the third grade, they’re always going to be lagging behind in school,” Spomer said. “We’re trying to encourage kids to read more in first, second and third grade, and we put up the bikes to give a little more encouragement for them to read.”

The lodge bought 26 bikes from Walmart for $1,300 and distributed a boy’s and girl’s bike to each of Amphi’s 13 elementary schools. It started awarding the first of the bikes Sept. 5 and is distributing them to all the schools.

The program, which originated in 2002 with the lodge’s first donations to Amphi, has been so successful that other Masonic lodges have taken notice. Now lodges in 25 states run similar programs.

“It just makes you feel so great, that you touched children’s hearts,” Spomer said. “They just glow with happiness from it.”

The lodge leaves it up to each school to determine how to distribute the bikes. Many use a drawing system, with students earning more entries the more they read.

Nash Elementary School Principal Bob Hehli said the program is a bright spot in the school year. Because the school has so many reading incentives in place, Hehli uses the program to encourage positive behavioral choices.

When school personnel spot children setting good examples for others, they enter their names in a drawing. The winners aren’t determined solely by chance, though — Hehli makes sure the bikes go to children in need.

“It’s pretty exciting,” he said, adding that his school has many impoverished children.

“The kids think it’s pretty cool. We don’t always get stuff that we need, and that this organization donates to our school, as well as many other schools, is important to us. Our kids don’t get a lot of new stuff.”

Spomer said he has seen the program’s results personally: Kids have told them they read full books for the first time thanks to the program.

“That kind of thing makes your heart feel good,” he said. “To hear a youth say something like that.”

Spomer said the lodge chose Amphi because of the number of at-risk children in its schools. He said the program “went over very well.”

“The school district really takes proactive action to find new avenues to encourage children to stay in school. I think it’s great encouragement for kids.”

The joy the kids receive when they win their bikes is infectious, Spomer said.

“It’s like seeing kids open up their Christmas presents,” he said. “They get really excited about it. They’re all smiles.”

Hehli cherishes the experience through his students’ eyes, and says those who don’t win are happy for those who do.

“I think back to how much a bike meant to me and how much a bike means to my own kids,” Hehli said. “I love the whole process. When kids got their bikes last year, we let them ride them around in our courtyard. They were just on cloud nine. Neither one of them have had a brand-spanking-new bike like that, and they were excited.”

Contact Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or pvillarreal@azstarnet.com