Cycling Forward Helps Youth Ride On
By Christine Soja
The main room at the Orion Center in downtown Seattle can be a reception area, a dining hall, a classroom, a safe haven, or an overnight shelter. Tonight it is a bike shop. The tables have been set up buffet-style and are covered with milk labeled crates filled with bike parts. There is an aroma of WD-40 mixed with White Lightning. Music can be heard in the background along with the sound of tools hitting metal and the occasional grunt of frustration as five young men diligently work on bikes in various states of repair. A few other youth lounge on the couches, looking over diagrams and sorting a box of seats. Community Outreach Counselor Benji Rouse and volunteer Jonathan Worthen circulate among the young men offering advice and hands-on help.
Tonight is like any other Tuesday night at Orion, when from 3:30 to 6:30, anyone interested in learning about, fixing or riding can come into the center to refurbish one of the nearly two dozen bikes in various conditions which hang behind the reception area. One young man is here for the first time; Rouse helps him pick out a fixer-upper and sets him to work with a detailed checklist to identify what parts can stay and what needs to be replaced or repaired.
Rouse started the program to keep the space open for those in need.
“Cycling Forward” is just one of the many programs that YouthCare offers to help homeless young men and women find stable housing, education, training and employment. Since 1974, the organization has served homeless and under-served youth ages 11-24. The cycling program is unique because individuals who face barriers keeping them from other more structured programs can find a safe and stable place to learn new skills with mentors to guide them.
Rouse and Worthen keep the atmosphere comfortable and flexible. They are careful to respect everyone’s boundaries and encourage teamwork and patience. Light meals are also available as are showers and laundry so they don’t have to sacrifice basic needs to enter a program.
Two years ago, staffing shortages forced the drop-in center to close on Tuesday nights. This prompted Rouse to start Cycling Forward to keep the space open to those in need while providing a focused activity. He and Worthen are both self-taught bike mechanics who have fun learning, watching You Tube tutorials, reading manuals, and problem solving alongside their students. They enjoy the challenge of piecing together bikes from imperfect parts to make the most of what they have.
At Cycling Forward the bicycle is a metaphor for where these youth are in their lives and the possibilities of the future. People donate broken down, abused or neglected bikes, youth select a frame, identify the problems and the necessary tools needed, then together with the help of staff they get it in working condition. Participants use new skills, critical thinking and ingenuity to solve big problems. Sometimes things fall apart, doing more damage than they intended, but each day they do their best to make it functional, and eventually ride out the door under their own power and with no strings attached. The enduring message is that you can start again. Rouse adds that he always “trusts their ability to do right by the bike.”
While these skills may not translate directly to employment, participants practice sharpening their critical thinking, gain confidence and learn to problem solve. Cycling Forward has proven successful in the short time it has been running.
One young woman came to the program not even knowing how to ride. She was initially attracted by the fun and supportive environment and then learned to patch tubes. Eventually she built a BMX bike and now considers it her own. The next step will be learning how to ride it. “We’re gonna get there” Rouse encourages.
A handful of youth have found employment in bike delivery after participating in Cycling Forward. However, Rouse cautions that he’s “not training bike mechanics, he’s training people to be able to understand a complex machine, to get excited about what that machine looks like and how it functions, and they can take it from there.”
One young man who was working in a sandwich shop learned quickly and moved up to bike delivery and is now in a housing program. A fire was lit and in a few months he transferred to other programs and is now riding around town on a $1,000 bike and is a cycling enthusiast. A few months before, bikes hadn’t even been on his radar, now he’s a professional bike deliverer.
One person, a war veteran, worked through the program but afterwards lost his temper and destroyed his bike. He returned to Cycling Forward and re-built it. Rouse coaches to “be forgiving with yourself. It’s OK to make mistakes, if it works it works, if it doesn’t we try again next week.”
Working through frustration is a big part of bike repair; on this night one kid becomes frustrated and begins shouting and is on the verge of boiling over. Rouse gives him some space and tells him to be patient with himself. Rouse was proud because he had helped him see that he already had the skills “We just needed to find a different solution,” he explains.
Another participant used his refurbished bike to spend the day filling out job applications, and found work within a week. Rouse has even loaned bikes to youth in crisis. For example, one participant took a bike out for several hours around the city and “came back with a huge smile on his face drenched in sweat.” He needed an escape from his crisis and sometimes riding bicycles can provide that. Another teen came to Cycling Forward dreaming of saving for a car because he believed he needed one to find a girlfriend. After refurbishing a bike in the program and riding avidly around town, he met a girl cyclist and confessed, “I don’t think I need a car anymore.”
Worthen is proud when he sees teens helping each other with skills they have learned in the program. Working on bikes can give them some time to focus only on the task at hand. The process connects body and mind, and in the end, bicycles provide reliable transportation and exercise which can greatly reduce stress.
Cycling Forward is always looking for support, and Worthen says, “Anything that comes in will get used.” However, there is a high need for locks, tools, panniers, racks and fenders. Many homeless have anxiety about the security of their personal possessions, and a lock placed on a well-earned bike can alleviate some of that stress. It can be devastating for someone with very few possessions to lose something they not only worked on themselves, but need for essential transportation.
Rouse dreams of taking Cycling Forward participants on a field trip, out of the city for an overnight camping excursion. This, he feels, would give many who rarely leave the city a chance to broaden their horizons, change their perspective and have some fun. Once again, the bicycle can be a vehicle for change.
At the end of the evening, everything is put away and the sleeping mats are rolled out as the Orion Center transforms itself yet again. Tonight, fifteen homeless teens will find a warm, safe place to sleep. Transformation is central to YouthCare and Cycling Forward, and together they are transforming not only cast-off bikes, but supporting Seattle’s struggling young people.
Christine Soja is a freelance writer, a mother, a teacher and a member of Peterson Racing. She can be reached at email@example.com.
- If you are interested in providing support or getting involved, check out the following local programs in Seattle:
- Bicycles for Humanity, Seattle (B4HS) is dedicated to shipping thousands of bicycles to South Africa every year to help poor and impoverished villagers improve their lives with transportation: www.b4hs.org
- The Bikery is an all-volunteer run, non-profit, community bike project located between the Central and the International districts: www.thebikery.org
- The Bike Shack is a volunteer-run, donation-funded community bike shop that helps people learn to fix their bikes and provides tools for community use: www.bikeshack.org
- Bike Works has been working for kids, bikes, and the community since 1996. Their programs invest in young people and encourage bicycling as a clean and healthy transportation alternative: www.Bikeworks.org
- Cycling Forward: contact Benji Rouse at firstname.lastname@example.org