Making wheel change: Underprivileged youths earn bikes, skills, hope

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Fernando Ibarra couldn’t figure out how to fix his bike.

So he took it to Lucky Bikes Re-Cyclery, a nonprofit community bike shop a block from his house in west Denver.

He couldn’t afford the repair price, but the shop manager offered another option. Ibarra, then 15, could volunteer around the shop, work off the cost of the parts he needed, and learn how to do the repair himself.

“I came in every day after school and kept at it, and before long I had a great bike,” Ibarra said.

Now 20, Ibarra works as a mechanic at Lucky Bikes, and said the shop brought far more to his life than just a couple wheels under his feet — he calls his coworkers his “bike family.”

“The folks here got me into mountain bike racing,” he said as he ran new brake lines on a BMX bike. “I’ve raced in Leadville, Granby — beautiful places I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I’m so grateful for this place.”

Lucky Bikes is one of several nonprofit bike shops in the Denver metro area, working to connect underprivileged youths with their own transportation, the skills to repair bikes themselves, and even start careers.

Bringing bikes to the masses

Bicycles can be transformative for young people, said Jon Pasquini, the executive director of Lucky Bikes and its sister organization, Trips For Kids.

“There’s a sense of adventure on a bike,” Pasquini said. “As a kid, that freedom is amazing. There’s independence, there’s health and exercise, and it’s good for the environment, too.”

A former teacher, Pasquini wrote a curriculum for Learn to Earn a Bike, a 10-hour program where youngsters learn not just how to repair a bike, but also about the physics behind biking — levers, pulleys, force — and at the end get to keep their bike, a helmet and a set of tools.

The shop has lots of other programs, including three-month internships where local youth can learn customer service skills in addition to repairs. The pandemic put the kibosh on many of the shop’s fundraising efforts, but thankfully a boom in sales of refurbished bikes is keeping the shop afloat.

Now, Pasquini is working on a mountain biking team for local kids.

“Cycling is seen as an elitist sport,” he said. “Lots of kids on those teams are riding $10,000 bikes. We’re going to provide kids with bikes on that level. We’re bringing it to the masses.”

‘It kept me going’

For others, nonprofit community bike shops are an integral part of the community, and a lifeline in tough times.

Julie Messa of Golden found herself out of work in mid-March as the pandemic forced the shutdown of the Golden Community Center’s senior program. Facing an uncertain future, Messa wanted to fall back on her favorite pastime of biking, but her bike was in shambles.

“Since I was out of work, I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on a new bike,” she said.

That’s where the Golden Optimists Bicycle Recycle Program came in. For years, Messa had bought bikes for her two children from the program, dropping off their old ones as they outgrew them.

The bike she picked up at the beginning of the pandemic “kept me going,” she said.

Messa wasn’t alone, said Carol Cameron, the group’s president.

“Bikes are the new toilet paper,” Cameron said. “Bikes and parts are in super high demand right now.”

The pandemic kept the shop from holding one of its key events this year: driving refurbished bikes down to the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region. The silver lining, she said, is that more elite cyclists donated a good number of high-end used bikes and parts in the spring and summer as they upgraded.

The program, among the older in the Denver area, operates on an all-volunteer basis, selling refurbished bikes to cover the cost of tools and rent. They work with local social services agencies to donate bikes to locals experiencing homelessness.

“If someone just needs a bike but can’t afford one, we’ll donate one,” Cameron said. “We have no means testing. We get taken advantage of sometimes, but hey, we’re Optimists.”

Doing the work

Connecting people with bikes can be a means to personal growth, said Jon Buck, the executive director of Project reCYCLE, a nonprofit community bike shop in Englewood.

The group, which is in the process of rebranding as HopeCycle, works with local schools to donate bikes to underprivileged students who show improvements in “academics, attendance and attitude.”

“Research has shown that in material poverty, there are underdeveloped plans for the future,” Buck said. “We try to give kids a chance to believe in themselves and realize they can plan for the future and achieve it.”

Buck, a former pastor, said that while the group is non-religious, he personally finds a sense of spiritual fulfillment in his work.

“If I have to choose between talking about what Jesus said but not doing the work, and doing the work but not talking about it, I’ll choose the latter,” he said.

Buck is involved in a wider range of local efforts to boost bicycling, including sitting on the City of Littleton’s transportation board, where he advocates for more and better bike lanes around town.

Buck said bikes are bringing light to dark times.

“This is tangible, simple, and it can change lives,” Buck said. “People need hope now more than ever.”

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