Changing lives one bike at a time
by Lisa Reisman
OLD SAYBROOK >> A thick-tired Huffy. A vintage Radio Flyer tricycle. Bikes with banana seats, with slim racing saddles, with fixed gears, with three speeds, with 10. All of which, along with hundreds of others, volunteers loaded onto a Zane’s Cycles delivery truck on a recent sun-drenched Friday in Old Saybrook.
In the thick of the action: Tom Girard, manager of Zane’s Cycles in Branford, and Dave Fowler, president of Bikes for Kids, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide bicycles to underprivileged children, which was moving from its Old Saybrook location to a new warehouse and headquarters in Essex.
For both, it’s about changing lives one thick-tired Huffy or tricycle or three-speed at a time.
That’s because each understands that bicycles are not just about exercise. Hence, the eight-week Morning Moves program that Girard and employee Tom Naughton lead at Tisko Elementary School in Branford, working with 30 young students from kindergarten to fourth grade until they can ride a bike.
“Bikes allow kids to get out and explore,” Girard said, adding that working parents often don’t have the time, or energy, to teach their children how to ride. “They give kids that feeling of freedom you can only get on a bicycle. Every kid should have that feeling.”
Which explains this year’s holiday initiative: any bike donated to Zane’s will be fixed and tuned for free and given to a family in need. Not to mention Zane’s trade-in trade-up program, where parents receive a 100 percent credit of the original purchase price toward the next larger Zane’s original bike. Some of the trade-ins they resell. Others they donate.
In the last 10 years, close to 1,000 of those trade-ins have made a stop at St. Patrick’s Church in Norwich where those on probation, as part of their community service, repair and refurbish the bikes and load them on a container headed to either the other side of town or as far off as Haiti.
Wherever, in other words, a bike is needed.
Then there’s the annual Race 4 Chase, a free six-week triathlon camp for youth at various Ys around the state named for Chase Kowalski, a victim of the Sandy Hook School shooting.
Last summer, Zane’s donated bikes to Fowler’s Bikes for Kids, which supplied Race 4 Chase participants with 200 free bikes and helmets.
That’s far from the only initiative embraced by Bikes for Kids, which was founded by Old Saybrook resident Chuck Graeb in 1989 with the aim of making sure no child would have the “rotten feeling” of never owning a bike that he experienced while growing up in the Bronx during the Great Depression, according to the Bikes for Kids website.
Like Graeb, who delivered more than 12,000 bicycles in his lifetime, and Zane’s Girard, Fowler, a retired teacher who took over as the organization’s president in 2009, understands that bikes serve multiple purposes. For one, it’s a way to “keep city kids off the streets by putting them on the streets.”
For those getting their lives together, a bicycle can also be a life-changer. Take the group working with adults on basic job skills in Norwich, and the home operated by a Catholic nun for homeless men with AIDS in Hartford.
“They were getting jobs around town,” said Fowler. “A bike allowed them to get where they needed to go.”
For Haitians whose lives were devastated in the wake of the earthquake in 2010, the 140 bikes provided by the organization literally saved lives, according to Fowler. “They helped people get to distribution centers when cars and buses ran out of gas.”
Likewise, with the 45 bikes sent through the group Artists for World Peace in Middletown, women in a Tanzanian village “no longer have to walk for miles to have their maize ground up in a mill,” Fowler said.
All of which is why, with the bigger space and lower rent in Essex, Bikes for Kids can not only continue its “err on the side of grace” policy of “never having to say no to anyone,” as Fowler put it, a policy that has them on course to give away 20,000 bikes by next spring.
It can also ensure that a bike’s function doesn’t end with the life-changing, life-saving properties for its recipients. Just ask one of the students from the Joshua Center – Shoreline, a school in Old Saybrook for kids with emotional and behavioral problems. Having learned all facets of bike repair from Fowler, he had overhauled and refurbished many of the bikes being loaded onto the truck.
“I like knowing that I’m helping people,” he said, as he watched the truck disappear up the road to Essex. “Plus when you fix something that’s broken, you don’t need a person to say you did a good job. You know it’s fixed. You just feel good.”