Freewheelin' Community Bikes

Kids walk out of an Earn-A-Bike program in Indianapolis with life skills and a new set of wheels.

The back half of Freewheelin’ Community Bikes in Mapleton-Fall Creek, is an enormous workspace: spare tires hang from the ceilings, and wooden workbenches litter the floors. It’s standard fare for a bike-repair operation, but for the local kids who go through Freewheelin’s Earn-A-Bike program, it’s a second home.

Freewheelin’ opened as a bike co-op in the basement of a local church in 2008, says Holly Titus, the organization’s executive director. Looking to bike restoration programs at co-ops in cities like Minneapolis and Chicago, Freewheelin’ moved to a larger space and established its Earn-A-Bike program in 2010.

Bike co-ops are essential for urban cycling communities. They’re places where cyclists can share skills and resources, and police will often donate found or abandoned bikes to the shops, where co-op members will repair them and sell them back to the community at a reduced price. Most cycling cities have around two or three co-ops, Titus says, but few have opportunities for kids to get involved.

Freewheelin’s Earn-A-Bike program brings the bike co-op experience to local youth. Over the course of a year, around 300 local school kids participate in the program. Freewheelin’ hosts outreach events through the library system to bring in kids from all over the city. Through the seven-week course, they learn to fix, ride, and maintain a donated bike, which they get to keep at the the end of the program. But there’s a more structured curriculum in place. “I joke around with the kids that I’m tricking them into learning with bikes,” Titus says. In addition to practical lessons, the weekly classes involve written assessments and group check-ins. Earn-A-Bike follows a schedule, but “we really try to respond to where the kids are at when they come in,” Titus says. “If they’ve had a horrible family week, we’ll spend our 15-minute group check-in talking about that. It’s about knowing not just bike basics, but life basics—that people care about them and they have a safe place to come.”

(Freewheelin’ Community Bikes)

The Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood, where Freewheelin’ is located, “has predominantly escaped a lot of gentrification,” Titus says, “but it’s starting to creep farther north in the city; our area is where a lot of the lower-income folks have been displaced to.” Indianapolis is moving forward on a public-transportation overhaul that would increase and expand bus service, but the neighborhood is fairly inaccessible for many of the kids Titus hopes to bring to Earn-A-Bike. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Titus says. “Transportation is the biggest hurdle, but it’s also the thing the kids come out with at the end of the program.” For the kids who go through the program, owning a bike opens up parts of the city they might not otherwise have been able to reach. The Monon Rail Trail, one of the longest bike paths in the city, passes straight through Mapleton-Fall Creek, but until they left the program with a bike, many of the kids had never been on it.

Local kids often come to Freewheelin’ with minimal resources or guidance on life’s larger questions, like education and careers. One Earn-A-Bike graduate, Nicole, signed up for the program just a few months before she turned 19. She hadn’t applied to college, Titus says, and didn’t know what she wanted to do. Through the program, Nicole figured out she was drawn to helping the younger kids; Titus and the Freewheelin’ staff pointed her to financial aid resources, and she’s starting school for early childhood education this year.

Nicole fixes a tire in the workshop. (Freewheelin’ Community Bikes)

Nicole, along with a handful of other Earn-A-Bike graduates, is now working at the shop through Freewheelin’s Youth Employment Apprenticeship Program, which launched this past June through grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation. The youth employees earn an hourly wage of $8.10, and work up to 12 hours a week. “We want the kids who finish Earn-A-Bike to come back, but for them to say to their family, ‘Oh, I’m going to the shop to hang out,’ it doesn’t make sense. But if they can be in the shop and get paid for it—their families get that,” Titus says.

As the organization’s executive director, Titus is, of course, a big believer in the work that Freewheelin’ does, and the effect it has on the kids who come through the program. But nationally, it’s a bit of a tougher sell. Freewheelin’ “is not like a community center, where you know that kids are going there after school to get help on their homework, or a good, healthy meal. Those are easily trackable things, and that’s where the funding goes,” Titus says. Organizations like Front Yard Bikes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Bikes Together in Denver offer similar Earn-a-Bike programs for kids, but at the Bike!Bike! conference in Detroit this past month, which convened international cycling collectives in a series of workshops and lectures, “it became apparent how underfunded these programs are,” Titus says. Like Freewheelin’, these organizations stay afloat through a combination of revenue streams, including crowdfunding and retail; Titus expects that Freewheelin’ will have to apply for another grant to continue the youth employment program.  

While she and other community cycling advocates know the money will be an ongoing struggle, Titus isn’t deterred. “Not to sound too hippie, but this kind of program is just the good stuff,” she says. “This isn’t just throwing money at a problem or handing a kid a broken bike—we want to show them that they can take ownership of something they’ve invested in and fixed up themselves— something that will get them to where they’re going next.”

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