Sunday, August 12, 2007

Recycle Bicycle

Getting Your Hands Oily
In New Britain at Recycle Bicycle, kids are taught how to put together bicycles, and how to grow up in the process
By Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate, June 21, 2007

Stacy Hall was surrounded by chaos and bicycle parts. The Louisiana-born Recycle Bicycle shop volunteer was surrounded by a group of New Britain kids aged nine through fourteen. Hall seemed to be everywhere in the shop at once, with his Creole accent booming over the fray of enthusiastic kids giving advice and instruction.

"You don't need no brakes?" Hall asked a boy who was eager to bring a rehabbed bike home. "That's what the dead man said, too."

Hall and his fellow volunteer Jason Daniels — AKA Mr. D — were leading about a dozen kids in the "Earn a Bike" program through bicycle repairs at the Recycle Bicycle shop at 85 Arch Street in New Britain. The kids were mostly new to the program, but some had worked long enough to earn their 10 "good faith hours" and go home with a loaner bike.

Several of the kids told me they were looking forward to getting their own new bike after working a total of 48 hours.

Later, the same energy was present, but the kids were intently focused, working on bicycles. 13-year-old Alexis Lopez, a brash youngster who wore his hair in cornrows, puzzled over how to remove a part from the bicycle in front of him.

"People donate bikes to the bike shop. If they ain't that good, then we strip them and if there's good pieces, people might take them and put them on their own bikes," Lopez said.

I watched him for a couple of minutes as he tried different techniques to remove a pesky part. It was his third week in the program and he was still learning his way around the innards of bicycles. Mr D. worked with him, giving him a minimal amount of instruction, as he wanted Lopez to figure it out himself.

By then, the whole group of kids were scattered throughout the work space, putting chains on bikes, removing pedals and performing other tasks.

"They're alright. You gotta holler at them and everything because some of them need that," Hall said.

"I don't think you could call what Stacy does hollering," Mr D. said, causing an explosion of laughter among the kids.

When asked what he would call it, Mr. D responded with a grunt that caused a second laugh explosion.

"Bothering each other, fighting in the store, intimidating each other — that doesn't happen here. I'm the baddest one here," Hall said.

Hall gave an example of a recent success story, and directed me a newspaper clipping on a wall about a BMX racer named Hector Gonzalez. "We got a guy, Hector Gonzalez. He's getting all A's in school now, but he used to be a terrible kid. He was! Now he's graduating in another week or two," Hall said. "He's got all A's, sponsors for his racing. Complete turnaround."

The program began ten years ago by New Britain High School teacher Cliff Parker, after Mary Anne Drury, a coordinator for New Britain's weed and seed community development program, asked a crowd at a community meeting if there anyone was interested in fixing bicycles that were donated from the New Britain police impound.

Parker and his fellow cyclist Mark Hoffman agreed, and set to work on the bikes in an unheated, unlit garage. After a year, they moved into a city-owned property on Oak Street, and started receiving funding from the weed and seed program, and grants from the American Savings Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain. Later they moved to their present downtown New Britain location.

While a significant number of bikes are still donated by the New Britain police, donations come from a variety of other sources as well. The store now offers repair services, bike tune ups and sells new and reconditioned bicycles. New Britain courts assign juvenile offenders there for community service.

In addition, the New Britain BMX Racing team is run out of the shop, and a BMX course dedicated to the team is evidently under construction. Parker estimated that over a thousand New Britain kids have gone through the program, and that three hundred are currently involved.

While the shop is a step up from the program's first location, its intended purpose has remained the same.

"From its inception, the idea was we weren't just going to get bikes and give them to the kids. We were going to get the kids to fix the bikes," Parker said. As the program grew, Parker noticed reoccuring patterns about the kids who came to the shop to work.

"What we realized about three years in, is that we attracting kids who, in a large part had failed in school in every conceivable way," Parker said. "It just seemed this kinetic, physically engaged, moderately structured mentoring situation we created & was appealing to the kids that were the least successful at school."

Working with bicycles, Parker said, provided a tangible goal whose progress could be steadily observed.

"What we found was our kids could see the relevance of learning here in a way they couldn't see it in school," Parker said.

The bicycle the kids earn through the program provide incentive to stay, and through rehabbing bicycles, they experience goal-oriented working.

"If the bike doesn't work, it doesn't work& You can't say, oh, great job, and the wheel falls off. You've got to say great start, but it still doesn't work," Parker said. "There are real parameters of success and failure that can not be ignored, no matter how supportive you try to be or the trial and error process."

Parker and his crew had planned to move the shop down the road into an empty storefront by this time. That plan had to be put on hold when the building caught on fire the night before Thanksgiving. They plan to move into the space in September. With the display space available there, they'll look more like a professional bike shop.

Well, as professional as a bike shop managed by boisterous associates of the earn a bike program can look.

"Who knew that teaching these kids to be sales people — when the product is something that they liked and had some knowledgeable command over — would be an incentive to teach them how to be involved in the business world?" Parker asked.