Teens earn bikes by learning to fix them

EVERETT — The red mountain bike looked ready for a rusty retirement.

The Stump Jumper, a classic from the late 1980s, had a broken axle, bent rims, no brakes, worn gear cables and tires that had seen too many trails.

"It was pretty beat up," said Ron Toppi, a bike mechanic who founded Sharing Wheels in Everett, a charity that fixes and donates used bicycles to those who need them. "It needed a lot of work."

Instead of repairing the bike himself, he took the Stump Jumper and his tools to the Cocoon House shelter for homeless teenagers in Everett.

In the past year, nine teens at the shelter have overhauled bikes with Sharing Wheels volunteers through its "earn-a-bike" program.

Using donated materials, teens spend six weeks learning to fix and care for a bike of their choosing. At the end of the class, the bike is theirs to keep, Toppi said.

"It’s worth more to them if they’ve worked for it, plus it gives them hands-on experience and mechanical skills," he said. "It helps build their confidence."

Larry, 17, who has lived at the 24-bed Cocoon House for about three weeks, selected the Stump Jumper from the dozens of bikes donated to Sharing Wheels. He plans to ride the bike to school and to his telemarketing job.

"It means so much to work on it, knowing that I did it and completed a bike on my own," said Larry, whose last name was withheld because of Cocoon House privacy rules.

Although he had raced and repaired BMX bikes, Larry said fixing the Stump Jumper was tougher than he expected.

"I thought I knew everything about bikes, but I found out I didn’t," he said, pointing to the bike’s bottom bracket — a part he learned about from Toppi.

"The good thing is that they’re not only fixing up a bike they can use, they’re gaining life skills," said Laura Zavala, director of residential services at Cocoon House. "They get the gratification of accomplishing a task that takes a while."

Last week, Larry and Sharing Wheels treasurer Kristi Knodell made final adjustments to his bike, fine-tuning the brakes, which were rubbing on the rim of the back wheel.

"The kids really love this," said Knodell, who frequently rides to Everett and has toured France and the Rocky Mountains on her bike. "You can often see a change in them by the end (of the class). It’s something they care about and really want to do."

Toppi, 39, said he hopes to eventually offer a vocational training program in bicycle repair. He’s searching for a permanent site in Everett that Sharing Wheels can use to store bikes and open a repair shop.

He launched Sharing Wheels two years ago after providing free bike repairs for men at the Everett Gospel Mission. The group’s aim is to give low-cost, reliable transportation to those who can’t afford to buy a bike.

Sharing Wheels volunteers still regularly work at the Gospel Mission and run an annual community bike swap where kids can trade in bikes they’ve outgrown for larger sizes.

Last year, Sharing Wheels donated 50 repaired children’s bikes to kids through the Christmas House in Everett. They’re hoping to give 100 bikes this year.

"I really think everyone should have a bike," said Toppi, whose passion for cycling started after he lost his driver’s license a decade ago because of a drinking problem.

He regained his license, but still prefers cycling.

"I only drive if I absolutely have to," he said. "Bikes changed my life. … I found out just how mobile you are on a bicycle. It’s freeing."

Reporter Katherine Schiffner: 425-339-3436 or schiffner@heraldnet.com.

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