Summary: Finding free helmets is tough, but there are very inexpensive ones starting under five dollars each. Even that minimal amount of funding can be a problem. We have some suggestions. Local service clubs probably fund more helmet programs than any other source.
Secondly, it is not easy to find a source of free helmets. On occasion someone has found a manufacturer with some old helmets they want to get rid of, but that would be rare, and we don't know where to start looking. You are probably better off locating a funding source and buying cheap helmets.
Most of the funding we have heard about has come either as part of a large national campaign like the one run by Safe Kids USA for their local chapters or from local sources like the Elks, Kiwanis, Jaycees, Chamber of Commerce, a local business, a local foundation, an endowment, a union, a local bike club, a hospital, clinic or another local organization. That means that local service organizations are probably the best place to start looking for funding.
If you are running a more involved campaign, the Bikes 4 Kids program in Utah raised funding in 2006 for 1,000 bicycles, helmets, t-shirts and locks through sponsorships, a fundraising dinner with silent auction and bicycle rides, including a celebrity ride with Salt Lake City native Dave Zabriskie, the third American ever to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Some major charities use annual bike rides to raise funds, asking each participant to bring donations in. Adding a local celebrity can make it easier to recruit riders. The silent auction has proven successful for some local bike clubs, and in the case of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association has been combined with a cocktail party with formal wear in elegant surroundings to bring in an older and well-heeled group of donors.
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta does grants through a network of health departments in the various states. That probably means you could approach your own state health department and ask.
If you are intending to distribute free helmets, here is our page on the availability of inexpensive helmets for campaigns. And here is Steve Meiers' analysis of possible pitfalls of giving helmets out free.
For skateboarders there is the Ian Tilmann Foundation with their Helmet For a Promise Program. If you promise to wear a helmet, they will send you one for a $7 shipping fee. If you live in Tampa, Florida you can pick up your helmet at a skate park there for free. In mid-2009 the foundation site says they have given out about 2000 helmets so far. This program demonstrates ways to make sure the kids will use the helmets.
If you live near Minneapolis, the American Brain Foundation and American Academy of Neurology hold a free helmet giveaway each year, handing out 1,000 free helmets. Check the website for more info.
If you live in Virginia, you may be able to get a free helmet for your child from the Brain Injury Law Center. They ask you to contact them for details. On January 1, 2012 they limited the program to Virginia residents. We have no feedback yet from anyone who has contacted them, and all we know about the organization is what is posted on their website. It says that their Director is an attorney who "has won the largest mild traumatic brain injury verdict ever awarded in the world." They only give out helmets to individual parents for their own children, not helmets for programs. We don't know anything about the helmets. They cover shipping. Their toll-free telephone number is 877-840-3431 or use the link above. You must be a Virginia resident.
If you live in North Carolina, free helmets are available to helmet promotion programs every year. This NCDOT program page has the details.
We wish we could be more encouraging. If we find a source of funding for local campaigns we will post it here. If you find one, please email us!
Here is a message from one who did:I just did a helmet give away in San Diego County. The local Chamber of Commerce was my major funder. Also local merchants gave individually from their businesses. I was able to raise $850.00 with one presentation. As we finished our event, a representative from an automobile dealership came by and offered to support our next effort. Sometimes one success leads to another. Good Luck.