It all started 11 years ago when Becky O’Mara offered to fix the bike of a little girl in her Southwest Atlanta neighborhood. “It was so funny,” she recalls. “We looked at fixing it and found it would cost about $20 more dollars to just buy her a new bike. So we did that;—we surprised her with a new bike.”
In the neighborhood, good news spreads fast.
“About 10 minutes later, she came back with her friends…and they all wanted bikes, too!” she says with a laugh. “So we came to this concept initially, inviting the kids to earn a bike by picking up litter in the neighborhood.”
And so began Bearings Bike Works.
“It spread by word of mouth,” she says. “We’d get bikes from friends whose kids had outgrown them. Eventually, we ran out of trash, but found the kids enjoyed fixing the bikes, so we taught them basic repairs, then designed a program to build and fix bikes.” Today, anywhere from six to 18 kids are working at the shop, learning the trade of bike assembly and repair. As they work, the kids earn currency that they can spend in the shop, whether it’s for a bike, a new saddle or anything else.
In the process, the kids—currently at about 150 and averaging at about 300 per year—were able to find something even more valuable than a new two-wheeled ride: a path, a direction, a goal beyond their teen years…. something they likely had never before considered. “For a lot of these kids, it teaches them the basics: responsibility, perseverance and critical thinking. In the teen internship job training program, we change those to job skills; they can lead youth participants or refurbish bikes that get sold in our retail shop. They learn even more; how to get and keep a job, interacting with customers and showing up on time. It is life-changing for them, because some of them don’t have an opportunity to learn these job training skills right away. We’ve seen it from the parents, with how important it is for them to have this to do.”
Then there are the ones that fall in love with the bike and see a career in bikes, as a bike mechanic. “For a lot of these young men and women in our internship program, they’re learning technical skills, adding value in a real way. It’s a life-changing impact on these kids, to begin molding them for a unique first job experience.”
To that end, Litespeed and its parent company, American Bicycle Group, hosted the Bearing Bike Works students in June. After a short drive north from Atlanta to Litespeed global headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Bearings Bike Works students had a rare opportunity, to not only see Litespeed bikes being made from raw tubing to the finished product, they also got to see so many things they were already familiar with; assembling the bike from the frame up, making shifting adjustments, boxing, packing, all the things that go into getting a bike truly ride-ready.
“There was a direct connection for the students when they were in the assembly area, because they could see the Litespeed team using the same tools they use and really absorb the whole process these pros go through,” O’Mara says. The students were really engaged, with questions about how they hire, what goes into the assembly and manufacturing of these amazing bikes from raw titanium. We were all inspired in so many ways with the level of excellence, in every aspect of the process.
The bonus? While many of the students in the program are African American kids, the program isn’t necessarily about providing opportunities to them. It’s just how it happened to work out. The draw to the program is organic.
“That we have a lot of black students in the program is honestly happening unintentionally—and we love that,” O’Mara says. “We are excited to be a resource to bring our bike program into a community where it’s not always present is great; a spark is lit, and we just remove any barriers in the way, fan the flame and connect them with what’s possible. But really, cycling is just approachable for all of them—we all ride bikes in our youth years. In their teen years, they’ve developed a natural interest. So, to have it serve as a benefit to the black community, it wasn’t intentional—it was just kids wanting to be around bikes.
As Bearings Bike Works programs grow, so too does the shop’s interaction and impact on the community. “We’ve started a youth mountain bike team in the Georgia Cycling League for middle- and high-school kids, which is taking off,” O’Mara says. “We have some barriers into things like mountain biking in terms of accessibility to trails, but we work with local groups that are getting trails into in-town parks. Right now, we have two mountain bike trail systems within 20 minutes of us, which is great.”
On any given day, O’Mara has 50 kids under her stead. It’s an opportunity she’s thrilled to have.
“We just love to bring exposure to kids who love riding,” she says ebulliently. “Because cycling can be such a lifelong habit—a good one—it’s even more meaningful to us.”
Video Credit: Rachael Porter, rporterfilms.com