Blacksburg bicycle co-op preaches power of the pedal

After timidly peeking their heads out front doors, a few children in baggy shorts and ski boots scurried from their homes, across the courtyard, toward the beacon of light glowing in the far left corner of the community.

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Published February 14, 2007 by WVEC.com
By Lindsay Key / Associated Press

Virginia — The snow came down in cold white sheets over the Maple Grove Apartments on Pilot Street in Roanoke. After timidly peeking their heads out front doors, a few children in baggy shorts and ski boots scurried from their homes, across the courtyard, toward the beacon of light glowing in the far left corner of the community.

Just inside the door of the Pilot Street Center, children's laughter and the squish of snow-wet sneakers immediately melted the icy, snow-swept silence of the parking lot. This is the hot spot of the community. And for the 20 refugee children clustered there on this snowy night last week, it was the perfect night for a bike ride.

Three bikes had already arrived, courtesy of the Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative. Three more were scheduled to come on this night.

Inside, on-site coordinator Amy Nasta zipped around the center, slipping crayons into one child's hand while handing another a tissue. In the midst of asking one student about her homework, Nasta helped another child adjust his snow boots, holding the sides while he pushed.

"Nobody has socks around here," she said.

It wasn't long before a volunteer announced that the bike cooperative members had arrived.

Yusef Messallam and Aaron Barr appeared on the apartment steps. Messallam is a Virginia Tech senior and Barr is an engineer living in Blacksburg. He brought some of his co-workers with him.

The Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative was formed in the fall, when Messallam, Barr and friends set up shop in a Blacksburg basement, with the intent of educating the community about bicycle maintenance and repair.

Similar cooperatives have been successful in other college towns, such as Oberlin, Ohio, and Santa Cruz, Calif. According to Messallam, it all began at Oberlin College. They "were kind of the model that inspired others to open," he said. The co-op at Oberlin formed in 1986, and graduates have since gone on to start co-ops in Houston and San Francisco.

"As far as bicycles go, students have more of an interest and the time and the energy to engage in working on bicycles," he said. "It's totally volunteer-based and students have that sort of idealism, drive and interest to make bicycles work as far as their benefit to the community at large."

Melanie Almeder, a volunteer at the Pilot Street Center, found out about the Blacksburg Bicycle Cooperative from a friend and called with the intent of finding out where to get discounted bikes. She was pleasantly surprised when cooperative members offered to provide them for her.

"We figured these people would need a bike, and we have plenty of them," Barr said. He said that the cooperative purchased three of the bikes from auctions and other cooperatives, and three were donated by members of the community.

"A bunch of our mechanics came in, and when they had free time, they worked on them," he said, estimating that the repairs took about a month.

The six bikes were originally intended for one group of teenage boys, but they moved, Nasta said. The average time that refugees stay at the center is between three months and two years, she said. They are placed through the Refugee and Immigration Office in Roanoke.

The boys who ended up receiving the bikes are Issak Abdullahi, Damas Mugabo, Agar Mirco, Janni Marco, Kele Idephonse and Abdbiwahab Hassan. They are between 12 and 19 years old, and can use the bikes for transportation to and from jobs, to the store and for recreation, Nasta said.

Barr and Messallam worked meticulously in the snow, tinkering with small parts to get them just right for their new owners.

"We just adjusted the seat heights mostly, so they can sit comfortably on the bikes," Messallam said. During that time, the center door clanged open and shut, as a crowd of children gathered to watch.

Waiting patiently on the front stoop, 16-year-old Issak Abdullahi said that this would be his first time riding a bike. His friend standing nearby corrected him — that this would be his first time owning a bike.

"I'm going to practice," Abdullahi said with a smile.

Sixteen-year-old Abdbiwahab Hassan, who goes by his rapper name "Mr. Nice," said he would use the bike for recreation.

"Sometimes, when I'm training to exercise, I'm going to ride it. I'm going to ride it in the street," he said. Hassan is a junior at William Fleming High School.

Nasta and Almeder have not overlooked the necessity of locks and helmets.

In talking with Roanoke College chaplain Paul Henrickson about the bikes, Almeder unexpectedly inspired him to raise $600 for that purpose. The remaining money, it was decided, would be a donation to the bike cooperative.

"They're such good guys for doing this," Almeder said.

More than 80 refugee children live in the Pilot Street apartments, hailing from Burundi, Somalia and Ethiopia. Nasta said that most of them were born and raised in refugee camps and have been exposed to bikes before, though it's unlikely they've owned one.

"It's such a special reward," she said. "For American children, everyone gets a bike. But for them, this is so special. They're so proud and excited. They just can't believe they get to keep it all for themselves."