Bike shop puts a spin on helping others: Third Ward bike center teaches youths skills, a sense of community

Sedrick Walker got a lesson of a lifetime when he recently stopped at the Third Ward Community Bike Center to get his vintage bicycle back on the road.

•••

Published February 5, 2007 by The Houston Chronicle
By Dale Lezon 

Sedrick Walker got a lesson of a lifetime when he recently stopped at the Third Ward Community Bike Center to get his vintage bicycle back on the road.

He thought he'd pay workers to fix his bike. But it turned out that he had to work on it himself with the center's tools and parts.

"They told me, 'We'll teach you to fix it up,' " said Walker, 21. "I told them, 'I've got plenty of time to learn.' This is better than paying at another shop, because I learn at the same time."

Since 2003, the nonprofit at 3615 Sauer has provided people space and tools to repair their bicycles. At least two center workers provide assistance.

People use the workstands, wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools for free.

The center charges between 50 cents and $10 for recycled and new cables, wheels, tubes, tires, rims, forks, spokes, pedals, cranks, gears, chains and other parts.

The center's open to all ages, but most of the people who stop by are children who amble in to hang out with friends and help the staff clean up or recycle parts from ruined bicycles that have been donated.

"It keeps you off the streets," said Adrien Johnson, 14, who stops in often.

People can even earn free bikes through the center's Earn-A-Bike program.

To do so, a participant must patch a tube, recycle parts and repair a bicycle to donate to charity. Then the participant can build or repair a bicycle and keep it.

"Some people don't have bikes," Johnson said. "They need a bike. That'll be my way to help people, so I can have my own ride. I like helping people."

More than 550 people have earned bikes since the center opened.

Teenagers also can create chopper-style bicycles, cutting and welding metal frames with staff supervision.

'Real positive thing'

Community leaders say the center provides a valuable service.

"It's a good project," said Deloyd Parker, executive director of SHAPE Community Center. "It's able to guide and instruct young people. It's educational and practical. It promotes self-determination."

Many of the children who participate in the Progressive Amateur Boxing Association also have used the center, said Ray Martin Jr., association program director.

"It seemed like a real positive thing," Martin said. "You see them always there changing and fixing (bicycles)."

The Bike Center came about when four friends — Zach Moser, Benjamin Mason, Katherine Goodman and Seth Capron — searched for ways to continue the community service and social volunteerism they had practiced during their student days at Oberlin College in Ohio.

At the small, liberal arts school, they had worked in a similar program for students.

After they graduated, they hoped to expand the program by teaching youths to repair bicycles and helping them develop a sense of self-respect and community spirit.

Off the list

Also, they shied away from the rat-race in corporate America.

"None of us could decide what job we wanted to have, so we decided to make our own," Mason said.

With a $40,000 grant from the nonprofit Compton Foundation, the four friends piled into a rusty Ford pickup after graduation and moved to Houston.

Moser, who grew up in Houston, said he and the others considered Houston the ideal location for the bike center, because the city had a great need for social programs.

Also, Moser said, Houston's philanthropic community had a history of supporting nonprofits designed to improve neighborhoods and lives.

"There's a list of cities that social entrepreneurs and artists gravitate toward, and Houston was very far off the list," he said. "We found that challenging."

Also, Moser's mentor for the Compton grant was Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses, where Moser once worked.

The center initially opened in the first floor of the El Dorado Ballroom, owned by Project Row Houses.

But in August, it closed for to move to its new location a few blocks away.

Moser said he hopes the center soon will be able to buy the new site, a plot that includes a brick building that houses the bike repair shop and two wooden buildings that were once quadplex apartments.

Grandfather's bike

He wants to renovate the apartments for offices and space for his group's Beat Program, which teaches children how to mix and record their own music, and the Style Program, which helps children create their own clothes, including silkscreened shirts.

Walker spent nearly two hours one rainy afternoon last week replacing frayed metal cables on his brakes and gears and making other minor repairs.

A center worker asked if he needed help, but Walker was determined to finish by himself.

The bike, an early model Sears three-speed, was a hand-me-down from his grandfather, he said.

He hopes to restore it to it's original condition.

"I just like bikes," he said.