Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the last name of Alec McGilvray. This version has been corrected.
It’s close to 5 o’clock on a warm Friday afternoon in April, and kids are swarming over Barcroft Park’s baseball fields and jungle gyms. Adjacent to one of the fields, inside a windowless wooden shed that houses Phoenix Bikes, kids are grabbing tools off the shelves and setting up their respective workstations to repair and build bikes.
As Jefferson Middle School student Alec McGilvray, 12, shows a visitor the bike he’s assembling from loose parts, he bubbles over with enthusiasm. “I mean, look! This is amazing. It’s got a Mavic wheel, brand new tires, brand new tubes, a brand new seat post . . .” He trails off.
“He built it himself. He didn’t get any help,” says Stephen Green, who runs the youth program at Phoenix. “But he taught me to do all this,” McGilvray chimes in.
Phoenix Bikes is an independent nonprofit program that provides a place for kids to learn how to repair and build bikes, simultaneously serving as a bike store (albeit one with limited after-school hours to accommodate its student staff) and a youth training program. Profits from the store, a full-service bike repair shop that also sells refurbished bikes and parts, generate over half the program’s budget, with the remainder funded by county grants and individual donations. The program, whose origins date to a county-run program called Community Spokes that ended in 2006, was reborn in 2007 as an independent nonprofit organization.
Green says the program gives at-risk youth a platform to excel outside of the school environment, and that some of the students perceived to be troublemakers at school display leadership skills at the bike shop. “Sometimes kids have problem-solving skills that they’re not quite capable of exercising at school,” Green said. “This gives them an opportunity to do that on a different level and build confidence.”
Kids learn bike repair skills at after-school bike clubs, which meet at Arlington County public schools including Williamsburg and Jefferson middle schools, as well as at Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing sites. The meetings, led by Green, provide students with their first lessons in bike repair. Although any student can join the program, the clubs are required to draw half their participants from subsidized or free lunch program recipients. Students can then work at Phoenix Bikes when the store is open after school from Tuesdays through Fridays until 6, and on Saturdays from 10 to 4 in the afternoon.
After learning how to build a bike, students in the program are tasked with finding a sibling or community member who needs one — to get to the store or to work, for example. That first bike is then built to the specifications of the recipient. The bikes are built from recycled parts gleaned from up to 50 bikes a week donated to the store from the community.
Once that first bike is built and presented to the chosen community member, the student builder has earned the right to build his or her own bike and take it home. Last year, of the 187 kids enrolled in the youth program, 55 earned bikes of their own. Since the store’s opening, in 2007, more than 1,500 bikes have been refurbished through the efforts of 300 students.
Jane Scruggs, an ESL teacher at Williamsburg Middle School, serves as school liaison for the bike club that meets there. “They’re earning freedom in the way of transportation,” Scruggs said. “Many of these students come from homes without a car (and with little money for public transportation), and a bike can get them where they want to be, make them less dependent on others.”
Phoenix Bikes Executive Director Henry Dunbar cites numerous benefits for the kids who take part in the program, including self-sufficiency, confidence and technical skills. “We’re a program where any kid in the county can get a bike for free in exchange for just a few hours of work on their time,” Dunbar says, noting the benefits to the community at large, which include encouraging bike use as well as recycling.
Its current challenge is finding space to accommodate its growth. Dunbar is working with architects to explore building a larger, two-story facility at Barcroft, which would allow more students to participate in the program and expand the store’s reach. The shed is encircled by multiple rows of bike racks filled to capacity.
In light of Arlington County’s extensive bike lane system and bike-riding promotion programs through BikeArlington, Phoenix Bikes’ road ahead seems limitless.
Bettina Lanyi is a freelance writer. The Phoenix Derby, an urban cyclo-cross bicycle race to raise money for Phoenix Bikes, will be Saturday, May 17, in Crystal City. For information, visit www.phoenixbikes.org/2014/03/phoenix-derby-registration-is-open.