It's 1:26 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, near the end of a chaotic day at Freewheelin' Community Bikes. Since opening its doors in June 2007, the bike shop has evolved into a full-fledged community enterprise. Stop in and you'll find the mechanics truing wheels, repairing bicycle frames, inflating tires, adjusting cranks, tightening brakes, selling bicycles — and mentoring neighborhood kids who want to earn a new set of wheels.
"Four minutes to rolling bikes," announces Jesse Houser, an electrical engineer who serves as the volunteer director of operations. "Rolling bikes" has become a ritual at Freewheelin's 34th and Central home base inside Tabernacle Presbyterian Church. At the beginning and end of every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, shift volunteers roll bikes out and back in to the shop space — when closed, the shop doubles as storage for some 70 bikes, some of which are to be sold, the rest in line for tune-ups and repairs.
Anyone who's around the shop is recruited to help, neatly layering bikes, row after row. Large bikes are rolled in first, followed by smaller bikes. The process continues until every last bike has been moved out of or returned to the shop.
Under Houser's leadership, and with the help of many volunteers, Freewheelin's shop has become a finely tuned machine. Volunteers return weekly, managing the day-to-day business of operating a bike shop that also teaches kids about repairs. It's a mentoring initiative that allows them to learn discipline and gain confidence, and earn bikes of their own.
Freewheelin's program targets Mapleton-Fall Creek youth, ages 10 to 15. Since 2007, 65 inner-city kids have earned bicycles, having spent 16 hours in two-hour shifts, working and learning. A total of 200 kids have participated in some way. And now some of those youth are returning to give back.
"After earning a bike, we have incentives to encourage our kids to help new kids, forming a peer relationship," says Houser. After working an additional four to six hours, kids can earn multi-tools or other cycling accessories.
Altruism on wheels
One of Freewheelin's indisputable strengths is its dedicated volunteer base. Until last June, volunteers numbered around a dozen, working primarily in-shop. Already this year, organizing director Nancy Stimson can count 35 to 40 people on the roster who have wracked up an astonishing 542 hours so far, "of which 343 are in the shop and 199 are other volunteer time — when we remember to count it," she says.
In carrying out the community bikes vision, these volunteers run the show. But Stimson is instrumental in maintaining the human relations critical to the organization's success, perhaps tapping her prior experience as a Methodist minister. Described as the "powerhouse behind Freewheelin' Community Bikes," Stimson takes time to interview every interested volunteer.
"If there's anything I've done right [since the beginning], it's that interview, and then giving people as much responsibility as they will take," she says. "I have coffee with each of our volunteers. I've found out all sorts of wonderful things about these people, and I was able to put them into places where they could give significant gifts to this organization."
Volunteers tend to fall into three categories: a core group of those who work in the shop, mentoring youth and repairing bikes; ad hoc volunteers who work fundraising events and lead group rides; and the 6 board members.
While they donate their time for any number of reasons, volunteers say they're drawn in by bicycles as the vehicle to bring out the best in everyone. That vision comes alive every time a customer rolls away on a "new" refurbished bicycle that in many cases is older than the rider, and every time a kid graduates from the earn-a-bike program.
Ask volunteers how they learned about Freewheelin' and you'll hear about friends who were already volunteering, or cycling events in town, such as the Indy Criterium (a cycling race through downtown Indianapolis) and the Neighborhood Exploration Tour (a community bike ride promoting city health and alternative transportation). Or they wandered in to Freewheelin' to donate a bicycle and ended up giving their time too.
Often, they're lured by Stimson's enthusiasm in helping to create cycling opportunities for youth. "If you fall into her orbit, she will invite you to do something," said former board member Scott Semester at a friend-raiser in November 2010. You can't help but say yes.
Business is booming
As Freewheelin' expands, so do the growing pains. It's clear during the laborious process of rolling bikes that the organization could benefit from a larger, permanent location.
Tab church has been more than accommodating as a temporary home, considering that Freewheelin' originally arranged to be there only three or four months — nearly four years ago. The organization could also use a separate teaching space, and more paid staff is needed.
"We'd like to hire three key positions: operational director, educational director, and executive director, as well as employ another part-time mentor/instructor and have paid youth mentors," says Lenny Dintenfass, a board member and volunteer since the beginning. "Obviously, this would require a greatly increased budget."
He estimates they'll need to at least double or triple their budget to take on the planned expansion.
Stimson doesn't seem discouraged by that goal. She's already looking for new resources for the organization, which just achieved 501(c)(3) charitable status in 2010. And she has other big plans to further develop their youth programming — namely the supervised ride program. She'd like to see Freewheelin' offer a multiday ride for interested kids along part of the Ohio section of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route.
If the group's success up to this point is any indication, that amount of expansion is within reach. Kevin O'Connell, Freewheelin's treasurer and current board chair, notes that Freewheelin' has managed to grow despite the economic downturn. The organization, beginning in 2007 with nothing, now boasts a $40,000 annual budget. Stimson credits the Central Indiana Bicycling Association with providing the first seed money, a $2,000 challenge grant that two individual donors matched. O'Connell takes pride in the fact that nearly 40 percent of that has come from individual donations.
Those gifts continue to support the organization in its focus on increasing outreach and education, and serving a wider portion of the community. Freewheelin' is in the process of putting together an event that would introduce new participants to the city's cycling routes and the new Indianapolis Cultural Trail. "We're going to build our own marquee event for families later this year," says O'Connell.
Like any community programming, this is the kind of organization that O'Connell says visitors use to gauge a city. The League of American Bicyclists, a national advocacy and education group which met this past March, awarded Freewheelin' Community Bikes a Silver designation as a Bicycle Friendly Business, one of seven such distinctions for Indianapolis businesses in 2011.
It's a high honor for a group that started out with nothing. But even in reflecting on their progress, Stimson can't help but think in terms of further potential impact. "Having grown in tiny increments, watching every penny, and living on a shoestring for three and a half years, we are at a point where things are blossoming," she said at last fall's friend-raiser. But, she added, "there's so much more we can be doing."