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