SADDLE BROOK, N.J. — WHEN Justin Lebo bought an old bicycle a couple of years ago, he didn't think in terms of a childhood career. He replaced old parts, gave it a fresh paint job, and it looked like new. That was fun; so Justin, 10 at the time, got hold of a few more ``junks.'' After watching his dad fix bikes, he got to be pretty good at refurbishing them on his own.
Problem was, what to do with the extra bikes?
With the support of his parents, he donated two of them to Kilbarchan, a residential treatment center for boys which at the time had 20 youngsters between the ages of 8 and 14.
``The kids were so happy,'' said Justin, now 12, in an interview over a milkshake in his home. ``When we were leaving, they said, `Wait, you're forgetting your bikes,' thinking that we had just let them borrow them.
``I thought it was so nice that they were so happy, I decided to make one for every kid,'' he continued.
Justin saved his allowance and birthday money. He and his parents scoured garage sales, and alerted friends and neighbors. Whenever Justin saw someone with a new bike, he'd ask, ``What did you do with your old one?''
``He's always been mechanically inclined,'' says Justin's dad, Mike Lebo. ``Even when he was quite young, it would not be unusual for him to take something apart and put it back together again.''
But with bikes, it wasn't that easy. ``Sometimes it takes three to six junks to make one good one,'' says Justin's mother, Diane. ``They were mostly bikes going in the garbage.'' Often, they needed new parts. Justin spent time after school, weekends, and summer vacation working to meet a deadline he had set for himself: By Christmas, every boy at Kilbarchan would have his own bike.
Newspaper coverage brought more bikes his way, as well as donations and moral support. He met his goal with two bikes to spare.
``They loved the bikes,'' says Marcia Guthrie, director of Kilbarchan. ``Here was somebody doing this just because he wanted to - no ulterior motives. It was good for them to see that,'' she continues. On getting a bicycle, ``one little kid said, `It's like getting a new book, it opens up a whole new world.'''
Justin has continued his bike building, donating bikes to another boys' home and to families in need. His tally exceeds 40. Now he's working on bikes that will go to children at a battered-women's shelter.
Almost every bicycle gets a new seat, new tires, and new grips, says Justin.
``What I was most impressed with was that he didn't see it as any big deal,'' says Mrs. Lebo, who is naturally proud of her son but shares his modesty. ``He expected no accolades, publicity, or pat on the back.''
Newspaper coverage led to more interviews - for magazines, on local TV news shows, the New Mickey Mouse Club, even on Geraldo Rivera's talk show. (Justin turned ``beet red,'' says his mother, when Mr. Rivera called him an ``American hero.'') He's received awards from the Giraffe Project, the local Elks Club, the Boy Scouts, and others.
``We were surprised about [all the publicity], shy about it,'' says Mrs. Lebo. ``We'd laugh, get excited, and congratulate him, but the best thing was getting more bicycles so he could continue.''
With Justin's permission, Mrs. Lebo takes out the scrapbook holding the many thank-you notes, clippings, and mementos. She tells how one man in California donated $100, another in Connecticut donated a bike vice, and a local bike shop gives Justin a special discount.
Bringing a visitor out by a garage occupied by old bikes and bike parts, Justin hops on a smart silver model that matches well with his black concert T-shirt and dangling earring. ``This was the first one,'' he says with a smile. His mom and three-year-old sister, Valerie, smile too.
Justin, who wants to become a physical therapist for handicapped children, knows firsthand how important it is for a kid to have a bike. ``I never walk anywhere,'' he says. So he'll keep rebuilding them, for a very simple reason, he says: ``Just to see the kids happy.''