Volunteers in Rochester, N.Y. revamp old bikes and give them to low-income city residents.
Got an old banana-seat beater or a red cruiser last ridden when the pedaler was into flower power? R Community Bikes will breathe new life into your old bike and find a home for it with someone for whom a set of wheels that’s practical, if not pretty, is perfect.
Tucked away in a cement warehouse on Rochester’s Hudson Avenue, volunteer mechanics adjust derailleurs, put on new chains and tires and get all kinds of bicycles roadworthy once more.
The bikes are given away to low-income residents — full-time workers who can’t afford a car, children, refugees settling into the area. Many of the recipients come from the same neighborhood of boarded-up homes and barred-windowed stores where the workshop is located.
So far, director Dan Lill and his crew have given out 5,000 bicycles since 2001. They provide about 500 bikes — and do about 500 free repairs — every year.
“It’s very rewarding,” Lill says. “It’s very gratifying to know we are doing something to enhance the lives of people we serve.”
He says many of his recipients have special needs or are in a financial pinch. “We’re trying to level the playing field a bit,” he says.
R Community Bikes started out in the parking lot of St. Joe’s House of Hospitality, where Bill Danza dished out meals to the homeless and needy. One day someone asked him if he could fix a flat tire on a bicycle, another a chain.
Call it fate.
Danza pulled out his wrench for everyone he could, and soon Lill joined him outside the South Avenue soup kitchen. There was definitely a need, and the Greece residents had discovered a new way to help.
“We knew it was going to be bigger, but we didn’t know it would be this big,” Lill said.
The operation is still small even if they’ve grown into a 6,000-square-foot warehouse. A handful of dedicated volunteers are the spokes that keep the R Community Bikes wheels turning. They hail from places like Greece, Irondequoit, Pittsford and Rochester. Wayne makes the drive every Wednesday and Saturday from Orleans County. They just filed for official nonprofit status last spring, and the effort officially became R Community Bikes in March.
“R” is a big part of the name. The R is for Rochester, and the idea of it being “our” community bikes, says Lill. “It is part of the community, we are part of the community,” he says.
The warehouse is filled with bicycles. Even the bare break room — outfitted with only a coffee maker and microwave set on an old metal desk — has stored cycles. In a main room, donated bikes are divided into two sides. It’s the triage area, you might say, filled with bikes of all shapes, sizes and conditions waiting to be fixed. Mechanics work in an area behind them, and wherever there’s room.
New recruit Aaron Root, 20, of Greece, is busy fixing a back gear shift and Jerry Frank, of Fairport, is stripping a bike that’s just too bad to revamp, of its pedals and other reusable parts. A neighborhood man will come by later to haul the scrap metal to salvage. They can’t use it, says Lill, so they provide the scrap as another community service.
After surgery, the bikes get a pink ribbon. Pink means “ready to give away.” Those bicycles are often visited by little kids on the lookout for a cool ride or adults who come to choose a cycle, armed with a referral from a church, employer or agency that shows their need.
There is another big room — which is a sea of bicycles, all awaiting a second chance.
R Community Bikes also works with classes at Edison Tech high school and the Al Sigl Center. Edison students are revamping vintage cruisers and Al Sigl students repair bicycle tubes so they can be reused.
Recipients use the bikes to commute to work, shop, go to class to learn English, to treatment programs — and the kids, for fun.
“When we started out at St. Joe’s, we described it as working with the homeless,” says Lill on a recent Wednesday while Danza was out leading a crew of volunteers making bike repairs at St. Joe’s, where they still run a weekly repair clinic. “What we’ve found over the years is people are working full time,” says Lill. “They are the working poor.”
The group advertises its existence with a few small signs tucked into the barred front windows, but word of mouth and recent publicity brings many to their doorstep — some good, some bad. The group has recently been plagued with break-ins — four since April.
The biggest loss was June 8. Thieves cut a hole in the roof and stole 30 to 40 high-end bicycles and all the pink-tagged bikes. Scheduled giveaways were delayed since there were no cycles to give. It was a financial blow because Greece volunteer George Dressing sells the donated high-value bicycles for $75 to $250 on Craigs List. The group uses the money to stay stocked with tubes, tires and other staples.
It was an emotional hit too.
“We think we’re doing something positive in the community and a small percent of the community doesn’t appreciate it,” Lill says.
But there’s good and bad in the theft, too. Lill said he had no choice but to install a security system, but as more people hear about the burglary, more people are helping. More than 100 bikes have been donated since the theft and a security company partially donated the system.
“Total strangers and people who have no connection to biking have been supportive,” Lill says.
Though it’s only 11 a.m. on this Wednesday, business is booming. Steve Voljehn walks in with an orange Huffy mountain bike, fit for a 7-year-old. He’s also got a Takara road bike, old but still hanging on to its sparkly green paint job.
“Actually, I found them on the side of the road myself. They were in the trash,” Voljehn tells Lill.
Voljehn says an Eagle Scout in his Fairport neighborhood was collecting bikes to donate to R Community Bikes, and he missed the deadline, so he brought them himself.
“Isn’t it amazing what people will throw away?” says Lill, eyeing the Takara. “It probably just needs air in the tires.”
That Eagle Scout is Bradley Wideman, 17, who made and passed out 1,000 flyers seeking unwanted bikes, and collected 130. He and fellow Scouts made simple repairs before dropping them off on Hudson Avenue so volunteers “would have less work to do,” he said.
A moment later, a family enters with a little girl’s bike. She flipped it riding down some stairs and bent a training wheel. Lill says they can fix it; they will call when it’s cured. George rolls it to triage. Repairs are free too.
A minute later, Liz Ewell, a Greece woman who volunteers with Catholic Family Center to help Burmese refugees, comes in with Maong Maong, 19, and his brother, Ahdan, 13. They arrived in Rochester from a refugee camp in Thailand three months ago. Maong needs a bike fixed so he can ride it to English classes. Like many of the bicycle recipients, this will be his main transportation.
Volunteering is a great opportunity, says Bill Cochrane, of Greece. An occasional cyclist and recent retiree, the group’s putting his career background to good use as the treasurer. He was vice president of a company. And he’s satisfied donating his time somewhere where he can see practical, tangible good come from their efforts, he said.
“This is one organization that truly gets to the heart of what it’s all about,” Cochrane said.
Kris Dreessen can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 253, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.