Table of Contents


Introduction & Recycle-A-Bicycle: The New York Model

Laying the foundation

Project Definition

Organizational Structure


Nuts and Bolts

The Bicycle Collection Network

Curriculum Content

Public Relations

Finding the Funds

Safety, Quality Control, and Liability

Last Words

Resource Directory & Bibliography

Appendix I - Financial and administrative information

Appendix II - Forms and Materials used by RAB [1 MB]

The Authors

Thank yous

Tools for Life: 
A Start-Up Guide for Youth Recycling & Bicycling Programs


Without a doubt, your project will require adult supervision. If you're starting small, you may not be paying anyone yet. Some projects do very well as volunteer programs, but paid staff invariably boosts the output and efficiency of a project. Paid staff can also be held accountable for the project's performance, while volunteers, well, don't really have to do anything they don't want to!

Let's look at the positions that have developed at RAB and what is required of them.

The Director

Bike recycling projects, like most human endeavors, are usually initiated by one individual with vision and drive. It is this person who gets the idea, makes the contacts, schedules the meetings, writes grant proposals, coaxes favors and donations out of people, and charms visiting royalty. During the early stages of a project, this same person may also drive the truck, sweep the floor, scold the kids, buy the doughnuts and fix bicycles.

In RAB's case, this person is Karen Overton, who has uncomplainingly (most of the time) performed all these tasks. It was Karen who first lay awake at night dreaming up Recycle-A-Bicycle. She was also the one who worked long and hard to make it a reality.

Karen has a talent invaluable to every administrator: the ability to draw in people to complement her talents. Teamwork is efficient and the projects that are able to mobilize a number of people to share responsibilities are the most successful. A good director knows how to delegate tasks, coordinate a crew, and ask others for favors.

There is one more thing that a good project director will attend to: money. It might be luck, it might be her fund-raising abilities, or it might even be the sheer worthiness of our project. Whatever it is, Karen has had great success in applying for grants. Credit must also be given to several staff members of TA that helped write the proposals that Karen submitted.

If you're curious about budget concerns and fund-raising strategies, we'll discuss them in detail in Paying the Bills.

Instructor/Head Mechanic

There is one thing about bicycles that we can't overemphasize: They are not "easy to fix." Yes, all the parts are accessible, and, no, you don't need heavy-duty machinery, but still, they are most definitely not "simple machines." Take something as apparently uncomplicated as the pedals. Just platforms for the feet, right? Well, did you know that the right pedal unthreads in the normal, counter-clockwise direction, but the left comes off in the reverse direction? That the threads can be 1/2" or 9/16" in diameter (unless they're old-style French, in which case there's a 3rd size)? That the bearings inside are usually 5/32" but can easily be 1/8"?

The complexity is not restricted to today's multi-gear wonders. A trusty old Sturmey-Archer 3-speed coaster-brake hub has more than 100 moving parts inside its cylindrical shell. And 26 x 1 3/8 tires? They come in two standards: regular and Schwinn. Both are labeled the same, but they are most definitely not interchangeable.

Why are we trying to scare you? Because we want to stress that your project needs a bicycle expert. If you're going to practice the fine art of bicycle recycling, you'll be dealing with a huge number of designs ranging from post-war newsboy specials to sleek European racing machines. There are countless manufacturers, and untold problems that can arise. Our first instructor, George Babiak, spent two years working as a plumber and electrician, after which he felt quite competent at those skills. He says it took three years of working in a bike shop before he considered himself a good mechanic. The sheer variation in componentry and design is what made the difference.

The good news is that everything short of a buckled frame tube can be repaired. You can still buy parts for bikes that rolled out of the factory a half-century ago. However, you'll be much more successful at it if you have someone around who has some experience.

Your head mechanic (it may well be you!) is the most important person at the shop. He or she is the one who will select your tools, order your supplies, organize your workspace, train kids and volunteers, and check all the work before it leaves the shop. A regular salary is the hardest thing for a new organization to raise, but if you can afford to hire a professional mechanic, do so.

When you're hunting for that skilled mechanic, don't forget to pick one who is a good teacher. In RAB's case, we were doubly lucky with George because he had an extensive background in theater and improv comedy. While he taught our kids, George also entertained them.

If you can't pay for a pro, do the next best thing: canvass your area for volunteers who really know what they're doing. It's not hopeless! Every town has a core of bike nuts, and many of them would give their left bottom bracket cup for an opportunity to work with your project. Bear in mind, however, that you can only expect so much from volunteers. If you push them too hard, they'll bum out and leave the program.

But maybe you're planning to do it all yourself. That's fine, but if you haven't worked professionally in a bike shop (and even if you have) our advice to you is read, read, read. There are countless books on bicycle repair available at bookstores and libraries. Back issues of cycling magazines are also a terrific resource. You'll find most of the better bike literature listed in our bibliography.

Other Staff

Of course, your project needs more skills than mechanical ones. A recycling project's staff must be able to set up an inventory system, organize bike collections, recycle scrap metal and tires, publicize the program, and distribute refurbished bicycles back into the community. People experienced as community organizers, teachers, youth counselors, and administrators are also necessary to a project's success. The type and level of skill varies by project goal. For example, a project that focuses on riding must have people who can plan routes, educate kids on safe cycling, administer first aid, and do roadside bike repairs.

Your project may have a micro-economic component in which kids learn how to run a small business. They may do repairs for the community or sell bikes that the project has restored. If so, a person with a background in business would be invaluable.


High praise must now be heaped on all the selfless people who "just come in every now and then to help out" at RAB. Since the onset of our project, there has always been a steady stream of adult and teen-age volunteers to help us in every area of the project, from unloading trucks of donated bikes to teaching kids how to make flyers.

There are two built-in "draws" that will attract volunteers to your project. Number one is the kids themselves. People who want to contribute time to their community often see children as society's top priority. They're not wrong about that. Every hour spent working with a child is an investment in the future, especially in the inner city, where kids arc starved for guidance.

The other draw is, of course, bikes. Some of your volunteers will be individuals who love bikes and know a lot about them. Most, however, will be people who love bikes and want to know more about them. The beauty of it is that they can all get what they want.

If you're lucky enough to get skilled volunteers, you know what to do with them: give them bikes to fix; or have them work one-on-one with the kids who are doing the fixing. At RAB, the approach with novices is almost as simple: they are invited to "adopt" a class. That means the volunteer is asked to come in and sit in on a regularly scheduled class each week. They watch the demonstrations along with the kids and learn at the same time (the material is new to everyone, so you don't have to make any adjustments in the lecture). In the hands-on portion of the class, the adult volunteer is assigned to work with a youth team. Since adults are more attentive than kids (well, usually), they'll have absorbed more of the lecture/demo than the kids. Grown-ups are stronger, too, and can more easily handle stubborn nuts or bolts. Even the most hesitant of adults can be helpful to a child. We found that no kid ever turned down an adult's help or complained about it afterward. RAB's classes can be quite large and often have four or five teams of kids working on the stands. There is always room for another pair of adult hands.

Volunteers can move up the ladder. One of our Washington Heights neighbors, Luis Rodriguez, is a former bike shop mechanic who worked for a long time as a bike messenger. When I.S. 218 first started up, he showed up in the first month and was impressed by our shop. From then on, no matter how hard his day on "the road" had been, he always made a point of stopping by. Before long, he was supervising our Saturday Earn-A-Bike sessions. By the Summer of 1995, Luis was earning a part-time salary as the main instructor at RAB. Luis's mechanical skills and ability to speak Spanish (he is Puerto Rican) made him a perfect choice for the job.

When it comes to volunteers there's no such thing as too much appreciation. Staff members must always remember that "vols" are not being paid for their work. They are there only because they want to be, and can leave at any time. Volunteers should be warmly greeted when they arrive and profusely thanked when they leave. If you can afford it, provide them with food and drink and even throw an occasional party.

The Kids

Kids aren't really staff, but sometimes they're treated that way. Like employees, RAB kids are given tasks that need to be completed in certain time-frames. Their work needs to be checked and they have to clean their areas and put their tools away. In our Earn-A-Bike program, they even collect a kind of "salary," namely, hours toward their own bike.

Everyone knows that the boss who wants to keep his or her employees happy should occasionally praise their work. So it goes with kids as well. There will also be times when you have to let them know their work is substandard. It will also fall upon you to tell them when their behavior is inappropriate for the workplace.

From time to time, you will have to settle disputes between your "workers." The most frequent conflicts between kids at RAB arise when the bikes assigned range widely in style and quality. It's a safe bet that your students will prefer to work on the 1993 chrome GT Freestyle over the 1968 Raleigh 3-speed. When arguments develop at RAB, they are dealt with rapidly. The rules are cited ("You must work on the bike that is assigned to you") and if a team is still disgruntled, they are told that "You learn a lot more if you can fix a bike in really bad condition." It's no lie, either.

Don't make the mistake of underestimating kids. On occasion, they have astounded us. In the end, though, you will sometimes have to remind yourself that they are not employees. You can ask for their concentration, but you can't really expect true efficiency. If a team leaves behind a disassembled bottom bracket for you to complete, you should only ask two questions of yourself: "Did they give it their best effort?" and "Do they know more than when they came in?" If both answers are yes, then your class or work session was a success.

Training Programs

Integrating volunteers through the "Adopt a Class" technique is very effective, but your project may be different from ours. Having tightly structured classes may not be a part of your agenda. If so, it may be necessary to develop a customized training program for your staff, kids, and/or volunteers.  For example, you might have a seminar every Saturday afternoon called "The Mechanic's Hour," where an experienced staffer imparts some tricks of the trade to the junior members.

Then again, maybe you're determined to develop your charges into the best mechanics possible. You may find that a complete A to Z training program, complete with certification, is what you want.

No matter what the goals of your project are, there will always be an educational component to it. Training empowers people by teaching skills they have not yet acquired and by delegating responsibility to them that they would previously not have been qualified for. Those who have been trained, whether children or adults, are better equipped to participate in the project at increasingly advanced levels of activity, and some may actually go on to get a job that utilizes these skills.

Training also builds group morale. People who go through a "special course" will be more likely to view the project as their own and help to plan or facilitate project activities. Several existing projects develop leadership by training youth in advanced riding and mechanics courses so that as they get older and more skilled, they can instruct other kids, giving them an elevated status for their efforts and sometimes even a financial stipend.

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