Phoenix Bikes helps get kids on the right path, on their own bikes

By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, April 22, 2010; VA13

A tiny, windowless shed in South Arlington is home to one of the more ingenious fitness programs I've ever come across. Did I say "fitness?" That's not exactly right. It's also a social services program, a Junior Achievement-style effort to teach kids business skills and a hangout for teens in the area near Barcroft Park.

Phoenix Bikes is so crammed full of bicycles and bike parts that the staff and volunteers have to move some of the equipment outside each day so they can do their work. "Like a Tetris game," says Jesse Fox, Phoenix Bikes' executive director.

Here's how it works. Kids from the neighborhood, most of them low-income, many of them from immigrant families, volunteer to work in the shop's "earn-a-bike" program. After 25 hours of learning how to fix flats, true wheels and answer phones, each 12- to 17-year-old is given a free bike, a prize that some of them might never have been able to afford.

Then, if they want, the teens help plan the group's rides and off they go, on trips such as the 90-mile riding and camping event along the Chesapeake and Ohio canal path that some of them took with volunteer leaders last summer. Others are entering mountain bike races. There are shorter rides every Saturday.

"Developing cycling as an avenue for adventure and exercise, it's something that has kids experiencing a sense of freedom and self-direction," says MathewEmery, chairman of Phoenix's all-volunteer board of directors, who grew up riding in Arlington. "There's just a special camaraderie of getting to go on an adventure together, and most of these kids will go farther than they ever expected to go."

It turns out that some of the kids like to hang out around the bike shop, so they are given larger projects: build a bike from scratch, construct an equipment shelf, color-code the tools. Stick to it, and they can earn another bike, and another, and trick them out as much as they'd like.

What's it like riding a bike you built yourself? "It's like getting money from the kid you put through college," said a somewhat embarrassed 17-year-old who asked me not to use his name.

The kids are learning riding and safety techniques, basic bike repair, business, planning and leadership skills, a lifelong fitness habit, proper nutrition, environmental awareness and confidence in themselves. They seem to do better in school. They go places and see things they might never have dreamed of if those two wheels and their own two legs hadn't taken them out of the Barcroft Park area.

"Bikes are just sort of the vehicle we use to teach them all these skills," Fox says.

Sami Albakhouchi15, has been hanging around the shop for three years. He says he can fix just about any bike that comes through the door. He also has been training with veteran cyclists, is putting in 30 miles a week on his own and has begun racing mountain bikes.

After college, "Either I'm going to open a bike shop or join a professional bike club," he says in that matter-of-fact way kids have.

Tommy Palmer, 18, turned the bike repair skills he acquired at Phoenix into a job at a retail bike shop. He now attends Northern Virginia Community College, but still rides BMX and dirt bikes all the time.

"I met people there that I'm still friends with now," he told me. A previous shop director "was like a second father to me. You could tell him anything."

How much is this costing you and me, the taxpayer? Arlington County donates the space for the bike shop and provides $8,000 a year. The rest of Phoenix's paltry $100,000 annual budget comes from grants, fund-raising events, private donations and the bike shop itself. For a small fee, volunteers repair any bike that comes in or help riders fix the problems themselves. And they sell some of the restored ones.

Given the area, the average cyclist who stops by is more likely to be an immigrant who uses a bike to get to work than someone on a four-figure road machine, says Adrian Gonzalez, an economist with the Microfinance Information Exchange who volunteers at the shop.

"I like that we're part of the community," says Jonathan Ferree, a rider and volunteer who does home energy audits as his day job. " I like that we're fostering that kind of community atmosphere."

I haven't even gotten to the best part. All the bikes, and most of the parts used to assemble new ones, are donated -- discards brought back to life, just like the bike shop itself. Three years ago, a group of riders and do-gooders, including Emery and retired school social worker Constance O'Hearn revived what was then called "Community Spokes" when its government funding evaporated.

Hence the name: Phoenix Bikes.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company