I’ve been fortunate to be traveling around the West since March of this year – sort of a pre-retirement tour of places we already love or have always wanted to visit. Typically, we rent a house or apartment for 4-6 weeks and this gives us a chance to get to know the community. One good way to learn about a town is to volunteer – it’s a great way to meet the locals, learn what is important to them, and understand how they treat others in the community. There are a lot of volunteer opportunities from helping at a food bank to one-on-one literacy tutoring. My favorite volunteer activity has been working at bike co-ops. I enjoy the co-ops because I get to wrench on bikes and directly help people. Plus, I see immediate results from my efforts. I particularly enjoy teaching and helping others learn how to troubleshoot. I’ve worked with 5-year-old kids, families, retirees who use a bike as their primary transport, and a few homeless folks who hardly own more than the bike they rode to the shop.
I’ve helped at bike co-ops in Silver City, New Mexico (Bikeworks), Boise, Idaho (Boise Bicycle Project), and Missoula, Montana (Free Cycles Missoula). All three have distinct personalities that reflect the needs of the community, their funding, and the goals of their employees, founders and boards. You don’t have to know anything about bikes to help in any of these organizations – they will put you to work to the level of your knowledge and train you along the way. Some have structured volunteer programs and some assign you to where you are needed on any particular day. If you don’t have a lot of experience, you might initially be taking pedals off bikes or patching inner tubes.
In a typical day at Free Cycles Missoula, I would show up and start working on bikes they would later sell and also help folks who walked into the shop. In one day, I helped a Mom and her whip-smart 8-year-old daughter fix a flat, an Englishman on a cross-country bike tour, and a Sophomore at the University of Montana who was building a bike for himself in the ‘Build-A-Bike’ program. He was tearing the bike down to the bare frame and had a lot of work to do but was enjoying learning how to do it.
As a kid, I tinkered a lot and learned mechanical skills from my father, friends, and books but I think that in this era of ubiquitous electronic devices many kids don’t get the opportunity to work with their hands. Learning how to build and maintain a bike is empowering and fun for both kids and adults. Boise Bicycle Project has a great program for kids to teach them how to build up their own bike – they tear the bike down to the bearings and know every single part on the bike once they are done. At Freecycles, one 5-year-old boy let me help him build his bike. He was so proud when he jumped on it for a test ride that he giggled as he rode around. With that much pride, you know that he’s not going to leave his bike outside to rust in the rain.
During my time at the Boise Bicycle Project, I still remember what I learned from Charles Mitchell, the shop manager, and this theme is repeated at all 3 co-ops to different degrees; A volunteer or donor may initially see the co-op as a place that helps people fix their bikes, but the mission is grander than that. The mission can be about education in troubleshooting, self-reliance, patience, working with others and giving people control over a part of their lives. I also see that the co-ops can bring a broader cross-section of society together than many endeavors. In my work as an engineer over many years I was mostly around medium to high-income people, whereas at the co-ops I was fortunate to work with and learn from people across a much broader spectrum.
For a bike geek like myself, it’s also a chance to see different bikes from past decades since the co-ops get donations of all sorts of bikes and can be like a mini museum of bike history.
I had never seen this BMX bike with rear suspension but this almost mint example was at Bikeworks
Every co-op has a large collection of donated bikes and parts and these ‘boneyard’ bikes are an important source of parts for repairs and new bikes
These also provide an almost endless supply for art projects, parade floats, tall bikes, choppers and the like
Or this parade float at Free Cycles powered by a side-by-side tandem
One day in Missoula, I even met Erick, a fellow Tufts graduate, who had just finished his degree and was on his way to Seattle. It was great to help him a bit with his bike and see him get back on the road.
I have never had a more satisfying volunteer experience and I strongly recommend you check out a bike co-op near you. Every child I’ve ever seen build a bike – it doesn’t matter how old it is, how bad the paint is or if the tires don’t match – EVERY kid has smiled when he or she rode that bike for the first time. I’ve seen down-and-out guys come in with barely functioning bikes and with a little help they walk out proudly knowing they fixed their bike and this means they can get to a job.
So, if you’re looking for a way to give back and at the same time learn more about bikes you can’t do better than to volunteer at a bike co-op. Have you done it? If so, let me know – I would love to hear what you learned.