Shifting futures through gears
August 05, 2014
by Parker Batt, PeopleForBikes events ambassador
While on tour this summer we had a chance to meet up with Phoenix Bikes from Arlington, VA. Phoenix Bikes is a nonprofit organization that serves the youth of the greater Washington D.C. area. Through hands-on bicycle programs, they provide kids with the opportunity to learn everything from technical skills to social skills. We asked Henry Dunbar, the Executive Director of Phoenix Bikes, to tell us more about their up-and-coming program.
PFB: Tell us about the history of Phoenix Bikes.
Henry: Phoenix Bikes began as an Arlington County Parks program funded by a 3-year grant. It was called Community Spokes and had one staff member working with kids after school. When the grant funding ended, a group of volunteers worked with the County to reorganize it as a 501(c) 3 nonprofit. We relaunched as new program (from the ashes of the old one) as Phoenix Bikes in March of 2007. One big difference is that we are now a full-service community bike shop, open five days a week. That first year we had 36 youth involved with the program and 21 of them earned bikes. We had 13 volunteers and refurbished 185 bikes to be sold to the community.
What does Phoenix Bikes look like today?
Since that time we've grown from one staff member to five, with four additional youth mechanics. This year, we will have worked with more than 200 kids, at least 60 of whom will earn bikes. We have more than 100 volunteers contributing more than 7,000 volunteer hours. We are projected to sell at least 500 bikes this year alone and do 1,000 repairs. We also lead weekly rides to teach the kids about how bikes can be a means to something bigger, something beyond their own communities.
Tells us about the earn-a-bike program and how it helps develop the youth in the local D.C. community.
Youth mechanics earn bikes by completing a skills checklist which includes everything from fixing a flat to doing simple customer service. After they complete that and contribute 25 hours of service to the shop, they can pick out a bike from among the scores we had donated and build it up to keep.
Are there any specific success stories from the earn-a-bike program you'd like to share with us?
Ever was a middle school student who had been in juvenile detention for a couple of weeks when he came to us in early 2012. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was at major turning point in his life. He had tried several afterschool learning programs, but nothing really interested him. Once he came into our shop, Ever has never stopped coming. After earning his first bike, then his second bike and then he started earning them for other people (we allow unlimited bikes earned). He took every course we had and completed our advanced mechanics program. Within 10 months he began one of our youth shop mechanics on the payroll and he has since gone to work in other shops. He readily admits that bikes and our program changed his life for the better.
What opportunities exist at Phoenix Bikes after someone has completed the earn-a-bike program?
Like Ever, the youth can keep earning bikes, especially if they want to give them away. We also have limited positions for part-time staff and have helped a half-dozen other youth get jobs in other shops. Some have also assumed leadership positions on our Board of Directors.
The community bike shop inside Phoenix Bikes. (Image: Phoenix Bikes)
Could you tell us a little about the community bike shop side of Phoenix Bikes?
Our hours are set primarily to serve the youth, but we are finding as we grow there is a great need for the affordable bikes we sell. The bikes we sell are an odd mix because we are 100% reliant on what happens to get donated. That includes everything from little kids' bikes to carbon fiber racing rockets. We have some oddities, too, like 50-year-old European folding bikes, tandems, trikes, recumbents, unicycles, you name it. That also means we get lots of odd parts. People often come to us for old parts, like 3-speed shifters, old road bike derailleurs. In fact, one of our part-time mechanics is a retiree who came into our shop looking for a derailleur for a 1980s Peugeot that we found in less than 5 minutes. He came back a week later and asked if we needed any help. At that time we had an opening, so I offered him a job.
This year marks the inaugural Kennan Garvey Memorial Ride taking place on August 2nd. How did that event begin?
This event combines our effort to honor an avid community cyclist who died of heart attack in 2008 shortly after we opened and an annual ride we do on a local trail. The Kennan Garvey Fund was established by his widow, Libby, who sits on our Board of Directors, to support our capital campaign for a new facility. Proceeds from the ride will go into that fund. The ride course runs the entire length of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, which passes right by our shop. It’s out and back for a total of 90 miles, plus an optional 10-mile spur that will make it a full century.
What are some of the biggest challenges Phoenix Bikes currently faces?
We simply need more space in order to grow. We currently work in a 630-square foot building and have to move bikes in and out every day just to make room to work. We still keep bikes locked up outside at night and security has been a growing concern. We also have to have many youth working outside on portable stands because we just don’t have enough room. Some days we might have more than 20 youth working and only have four available stands inside. And if it’s 95 degrees outside, or pouring rain, you can imagine how difficult it gets. We are working with the Arlington County Parks and Recreation Department to determine if we can expand in our current location, but the process is slow. While they are very supportive, there are myriad things to consider when working with public assets so the pace is very deliberate.
Like many nonprofits, we are supported by individual donations and could also use more of them. Beyond that, we also always need bikes, volunteers and, of course, kids.
Our program is still relatively new and small, but we look to the models set by some older, larger programs such as Bikes Not Bombs in Boston, Recycle a Bicycle in New York, and Bike Works in Seattle as examples of where we want to be in a few years. If things go well, we hope to be listed among the premier youth bike programs in the country a decade from now.
PeopleForBikes would like to thank Henry for his time and wish the rest of Phoenix Bikes best of luck with their mission. If you would like to learn more about Phoenix Bikes please visit their website at Phoenixbikes.org
One mechanic wrenching away at a bike in the shop. (Image: Phoenix Bikes)