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Bike collective gives kids tools for two-wheeled independence

Published October 25, 2012 11:17 am

Safe space • Participants are often low-income, at-risk youth who can benefit from a therapeutic environment.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Above the ratchet of socket wrenches, the hiss and pop of compressed air hoses and the mechanical hum of chains turning on their sprockets comes a sound typically unfamiliar to a bike shop — children's voices.

The young boys who exchange friendly chatter as they tend independently to their bikes are part of the youth programs that form the foundation of the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective. Since 2003, the collective's Earn-A-Bike program has given kids the kind of independence that Youth Director Hailey Broussard said comes only with bicycles.

"The freedom we give to kids by getting them on bicycles is immeasurable," she said. "Getting a kid on a bike will create freedom that they'll never know."

For many of the kids who enter the program, it's a freedom they haven't known. Broussard estimated that at least 80 percent of those in Earn-A-Bike are at-risk youth who frequently come from low-income households.

"My goal is for them to come here and have an experience they'll never forget," Broussard said. "They're often in inpatient treatment centers and I want their lives to be a breeze, and I come here to have fun with them."

During the four- to six-week program, kids learn basic mechanical skills, such as flat-tire repair, working on dummy bicycles rigged as teaching aids. Broussard and her volunteer staff also emphasize proper riding and bicycle safety before rewarding graduates with diplomas — their very own bicycle.

David Kappas-McFalls, a seventh-grader at Clayton Junior High, has taken home three such bikes. He said he didn't know anything about bicycle repair when he first went to Earn-A-Bike. But seeing his skills improve as he kept going showed him how capable he could be, and not just with bikes.

"I felt that if I can do this, then I can do what I'm not so great at," David said. "Like at first I didn't think I'd be able to fix a bike up; I thought it would be too hard. If I think the same way like that in school, I'll be able to do the same thing."

While giving kids the instruction they need to care for their bikes is essential, Broussard said it's only a small part of what they do. The collective is a therapeutic environment, she said, in which the kids are free to be themselves.

"You're working on a bike and it's amazing, when you get them distracted, what you can get to come out of them about their personal life," Broussard said. "It's too often that people don't listen to youth. They forget how hard it is to find yourself."

As a third-grader, David was introduced to the Earn-A-Bike program through another Salt Lake City education initiative, YouthCity. He wasn't the only kid who didn't know his way around a bike, but he said his inexperience initially made him more reserved.

"I was shy at first," he said. "I didn't really know anybody. But then the first week I got to know people, and then the second week I felt like I was there for a while."

He's now completed the program three times, but he said that first time was the most formative. He said he put a lot of time into that bike, and it's a reminder of that work and of the independence it gave him.

"I got it fixed up; I still ride it," David said. "I would never sell that bike."

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Earn-A-Bike program

The Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective has targeted predominantly low-income and at-risk youth from the YMCA, YouthCity, the Boys and Girls Club and Valley Mental Health since 2003.

The free program typically lasts four to six weeks, during which children learn basic bicycle repair and safe riding practices before graduating with their own bike to take home.

Youth Director Hailey Broussard and her volunteer staff work to ensure the program environment is as therapeutic as it is instructional by engaging personally with each attendee.