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Community Heroes: Bringing Bikes to the South End



When the founders of Bike Works were deciding on a place to open a shop in the mid-nineties, Columbia City materialized as an ideal fit. Here was an area that was home to a young population who relied heavily on public transportation, yet lacked a bicycle culture. At the time, not even a single bike shop existed between Capitol Hill and Renton.

Now, 15 years later, the bike shop on Ferdinand Street constantly buzzes with activity. On the surface, it's a store that offers refurbished bikes and repair services at affordable prices. Most of the bikes are donated – many are given a second life instead of winding up in a landfill. Behind the store front is a web of programs that extends into a community that has responded with serious and sustained enthusiasm. "Our problem is that our programs are almost too successful!" said Tina Bechler, Program Director of Bike Works. "Demand is higher than our capacity."

One flagship program is Earn-a-Bike, which teaches kids ages 9 to 17 how to repair bikes over the course of eight weeks. At the end of 18 hours of community service, helping to fix bikes for others, all graduates get to refurbish a bike to keep for themselves. After that, kids can join different riding groups, where they learn to navigate the city safely and independently on two wheels. Street Burners involves adventures on BMX, road, and mountain bikes as well as undertakings like bike polo and bike art. There are outings during the school year in addition to week-long summer camps. Certain camps bring kids outside the city, pedaling through different parts of the state while learning about environmental and social justice issues.

Every year in May, Bike Works also hosts the Kids' Bike Swap, a big powwow where parents can bring a bike that their kid has outgrown and trade it in for a bigger set of wheels, paying only the difference in cost – which typically comes to less than $12. The shop also runs repair and riding classes for adults, as well as donating its refurbished bikes to programs like FareStart, Treehouse, and even abroad (some 4,000 bikes have made their way to Ghana in the last 10 years).

The organization is constantly trying to evolve to increase its reach, and lately it has turned its attention to schools: "This past year, we were hearing that even when youth were learning to ride at school through great programs like Cascade Bicycle Club's Basics of Bicycling, they didn't have bikes to use once the program was over," said Bechler. In response, Bike Works created the UGottaGetABike program, a one-day program designed to get low-income youth onto bikes. "We go directly to schools to teach youth how to fix a flat, get a chain back on, and safely ride over the course of an afternoon." Then every kid goes home with their own refurbished bike and a new helmet. After successful pilot programs at Aki Kurose Middle School and Cleveland High School last spring, Bechler says they're planning on running four of these partnerships each quarter during the school year, delivering bikes into the hands of over 100 young people.

And the organization will continue to press forward, with plans for further expansion on the horizon. Though it has seen an improvement in bike accessibility in the neighborhood over the past decade and a half, there is still much ground to cover. As Development Director Lexi Keeler points out, census and King County Health Data indicate that 30 percent of residents in Southeast Seattle live below the poverty line and 20 percent report undertaking no daily physical activity (for perspective, that's the double the rate of Ballard and Green Lake). Fifty-seven percent of residents are overweight or obese. And residents experience a higher rate of diabetes and asthma than any other community in King County. Executive Director Deb Salls expresses faith in her organization's ability to chip away at these big challenges, bike by bike: "The simple act of putting a refurbished bike in the hands of a young person can have a ripple effect on our community," she said, explaining that it empowers a child to explore their neighborhood and city, get fresh air and exercise, and build positive relationships. "We are proud to say that the outcome is often transformative."

Visit Bike Works at 3709 S. Ferdinand St. or www.bikeworks.org. This year Bike Works is the recipient of REI's Holiday Giving Campaign, which starts Nov. 1 at the flagship store.

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