By Brett Ratner
Politics in Springfield has left a local not-for-profit youth program fighting for its life.
In January, Bikes N’ Roses was kicking off an initiative that was to provide career training and after-school employment for up to 80 high-school aged students from low income families that are 200% below the federal poverty line. The planned initiative was to be made possible by a $276,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services, through their Community Youth Employment Program.
When Illinois’ newly-elected governor took office, however, the grant money allocated to support the program was frozen, causing Bikes N’ Roses to turn away almost 50 students who had already quit their after-school jobs and made other sacrifices to take part. This also left the organization with no way to pay for a newly-leased location, supplies it had purchased, and other operational expenses.
Now, Project Director Oscar Rivera and Program Coordinator David Pohlad are scrambling to find a way to keep the project afloat and help as many students as possible.
Formed in 2011, Bikes N’ Roses is a bicycle shop and youth co-op that operates under the umbrella of Communities United. Communities United oversees a variety of programs in and around Albany Park that encompass youth development, education, housing, immigration, and health care.
Bikes N’ Roses, which currently has two locations, offers a variety of initiatives. Primarily, however, it aims to increase youth employment in low income areas. In 2014, up to 30 kids were typically benefiting from their youth employment programs at any given time.
As Rivera describes it, low income students attending public schools don’t have a lot of extracurricular options to take advantage of. So when the bell rings, they are left either with nothing to do and countless opportunities to get into trouble, or they take low paying jobs that force them to routinely work very late into the evening on school nights. This, Rivera says, makes it tough for students to maintain good grades and try to secure a promising future.
“There aren’t enough after school outlets,” Rivera said. “So what do you do after school? You either do something that’s not very good or you work a low wage job that goes into the wee hours. This makes it very easy to fall behind (in school).”
Rivera, a certified bicycle mechanic and former employee of Cycle Smithy, said the programs at Bikes N’ Roses aim to break this cycle. By training the students to assemble, restore and repair bicycles (primarily donated by area police departments, churches and other entities), and perform other duties typical in managing a bicycle shop, they gain valuable job experience while working a schedule that still leaves time for homework. During their time at the shop, the students also receive training on life-enhancing skills like writing a resume’, managing a bank account, interviewing for a job, and preparing for college. And since the students are earning a paycheck for their time, the program also benefits the families of the students.
“Many of these kids were giving their entire paychecks to their families,” Pohlad said. “A lot of the families were really counting on these paychecks. To give this to them and then have to pull it away was really hard.”
Adding insult to injury is that a large portion of the finished bikes were being donated to the Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm, also based in Albany Park. Rivera said the students came up with the idea and dubbed it the “Plant-A-Bike Campaign.” As a result, many of the bikes rebuilt by the students now provide transportation to members of 100 families who fled Bhutan and Burma and are now working to rebuild their lives in Chicago.
Knowing the positive contributions Bikes N’ Roses is capable of, losing the grant was a tough blow for Rivera. Dozens of kids still come to the shops to assemble and fix bikes, but the lack of ability to pay them for their work limits the amount of time the students can spend there and benefit from the programs.
“With the grant, we were going to serve 80 kids," Rivera said. “Now that the grant’s gone, it’s hard for us to serve anybody.”
In an effort to keep Bikes N’ Roses alive, Rivera and Pohlad have set up a crowdfunding campaign.
Visit www.gofundme.com/bikesnroses to donate.
About the Author
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell. His goals for 2015 are to complete the Lumberjack 100 mountain bike race as well as a 600 kilometer brevet.