By Lee Davis
After leading Mountain Brook to 68 state championships in track and field over a four-decade career, Greg Echols decided to retire.
But at the relatively young age of 60, Echols still needed a path for the rest of his life.
Last February, he found it.
Echols, now 61, became executive director of the Greater Birmingham chapter of AMBUCS, a non-profit organization that provides children with disabilities with therapeutic tricycles to give them mobility and independence. Since its founding in 2007, Birmingham AMBUCS has distributed more than $365,000 worth of trykes and bikes. AMBUCS originally was created as the American Business Club in 1922 and years later directed its emphasis to help children in need.
“It’s a calling,” Echols said. “Somebody has to be an advocate for these children.”
Echols gets emotional talking about disabled youngsters receiving their tricycles, which are custom-made to fit their particular need.
“One thing all kids want to do is play outside and be active with the other kids,” he said. “I remember a child who got his own tryke shouting ‘I’m normal because I’m riding bikes with the other kids.’ You can’t put a price tag on hearing something like that.”
An experience in his own life also gave AMBUCS special meaning to Echols. His son Scott, now 27, lost a leg in an accident at the age of four. “Scott’s accident changed my heart,” Echols said. “I would have given anything to have had something like AMBUCS when he was young.”
The practical benefits of a tryke for a disabled youngster go far beyond just having fun, according to Echols.
“A problem most children with disabilities can have is being overweight because of lack of exercise,” Echols said. “The use of a tryke can be a great form of prevention for obesity.”
All requests for a tryke must come through the child’s physical therapist. Once a child in need is identified, the application and measurement forms are sent to the Birmingham Chapter of AMBUCS. If AMBUCS has the funds available, the national office in High Point, North Carolina, is contacted and a custom tryke is ordered to fit the needs for that particular child. If no funds are available at the time, they are placed on a waiting list until donations are received to start the process.
“I have 17 requests currently,” Echols said.
Once a tryke is ordered, it is shipped to Bayless Machine and Welding Co., a local business that assembles the tryke at no charge. When the assembly is completed, Echols picks up the vehicle and arranges a time when the child’s family and therapist can meet to make sure the tryke fits properly. Once it is deemed ready, the tryke is given to the family.
“Some families donate a percentage to help defer the cost and pay it forward. Then we can begin the process to order a tryke for another family,” Echols said.
AMBUCS has provided trykes to churches, United Cerebral Palsy, the Bell Center, Mitchell Place, the Exceptional Foundation, Easter Seals, Children’s Hospital, Children’s on 3rd Outpatient Center and other therapy centers.
As is the case with virtually all non-profits, a sound fundraising base is essential for AMBUCS’ long-term health. Echols wears many hats in his job as executive director and raising money is among the most important. “Bringing awareness is a big part of it,” Echols said.
In an effort to make sure that 100 percent of funds raised go to the purchase of trykes and ramps, AMBUCS runs a barebones operation. Its Birmingham office is in a converted private residence in Vestavia Hills that also houses several other non-profits.
“A $50,000 check is always nice, but for some of the bigger charities it’s not that much comparatively,” Echols said. “For us, a check that size would be a life-changer.”
Echols has come up with innovative ideas for fundraising such as the use of social media as well as the Planet Fundraising app, on which a percentage of a purchase from a local supermarket chain goes to the AMBUCS chapter.
Another aspect of building AMBUCS included putting together a strong advisory board and board of directors to help guide the direction of the charity. Echols used many of his connections in athletics to put the boards together.
“I’ve got close friends on the board as well as parents of the kids I coached,” he said. “I’ve got some folks with track backgrounds, but mainly I’ve got people who have a good heart.”
Former Auburn football and track star Alvin Bresler is a member of the board. Much as in the case of Echols, Bresler’s interest in AMBUCS is personal. He has a grandchild with Down’s syndrome.
“This is a great cause,” said Bresler, who is the former head football coach at Homewood and Vestavia Hills high schools. “The greatest thing anyone can do is to make a difference in a child’s life, AMBUCS does that.”
Echols said that his work at AMBUCS is a calling from God.
“I don’t know how long the Lord will have me here,” he said. “But as long as He does, I’m going to do the best I can for these kids.”
Echols began his career teaching strong young athletes to run to the best of their ability. Now he’s called to help young people with disabilities enjoy their play time to the fullest.