Thousands of bikes and the promise of even more smiles are crammed into a warehouse in North Little Rock, the home of Recycle Bikes for Kids. There, any kid under 16 can get a free bike, a program that founder Ron King has made possible thanks to the generosity of donors who give and volunteers who repair.
It all began in 2007 when King, owner of Refurbished Office Panels, saw on TV a story about the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police fixing unused bikes and giving them to a local ministry for Christmas.
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“That just reminded me of my first bike, which was a used bike that my parents got me, and how important that bike was. And it was just one of those ‘Aha!’ moments where you say, ‘I could do that.’ “
King decided to buy 100 used bikes and fix them by the following Christmas. When word spread among his friends and acquaintances, he was inundated with 400 bikes within three months. From there, the program exploded. At first, Recycle Bikes lived in part of King’s office cubicle refurbishment business on East Sixth Street in downtown Little Rock. Because of the new development efforts in the area and the program’s need for its own building, Recycle Bikes moved to 717 E. 10th St. in North Little Rock in 2016.
As of today, Recycle Bikes for Kids has given away more than 14,000 bikes.
“They couldn’t stop smiling,” said Acthley Campbell of her kids when they first came in to get bikes. Campbell, of Little Rock, was at the warehouse for her third visit — she brought her children to get one new bike and two repaired. “They let other people ride their bikes and they get kind of torn up,” she explained. “I asked them not to share, but you know kids, they want to be nice and share with people who don’t have a bike.”
With five children and two godchildren, Campbell wouldn’t be able to provide bicycles if not for the Recycle Bikes program. “Lately it’s been kind of hard to afford things,” she said. “It makes them happy, you know. It gives them something to do other than sit in the house and play games. It actually gives them something to do, and they get along when they’re riding bikes.”
King reckons that the success and growth of the program has to do with the near-universal experience of the joy of riding bikes as a child, and the nostalgia that keeps people holding on to old bikes long after they have outlived their usefulness.
While it’s true that any kid can get a bike at the warehouse, the mission is to provide bikes to as many kids as possible whose parents couldn’t otherwise afford it. Anybody over the age of 16 may earn a bike by working three volunteer hours. Then they can pick out a bike for themselves, repair that one with the help of the other volunteers, and ride off into the sunset.
The earn-a-bike program has had an especially strong impact on the homeless of Little Rock. Nicholas Gay, a single father of three and a resident of the homeless shelter Our House, earned his bike through volunteering. He repaired his new bike just in time for his first day of work at Interstate Signs.
Gay wouldn’t be able to make it on time to work without a bike. “I’ve got to be there from 6 [a.m.] to 2 [p.m.], and the buses don’t start running until about 5 something, so I’d be late for work,” Gay said. “I’d get there around 7. So, I’ll be able to ride my bike if I wake up at about 5:40.”
Recycle Bikes, which has had a close relationship with Our House since 2009, has continued to form bonds with many community-focused organizations as the program has grown, especially after King formed a board of directors and hired Nate Keltch to serve as the program’s director full time in 2016. The charity is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit so that donations are tax-deductible.
“We love Recycle Bikes,” Mattie Thacker, an AmeriCorps VISTA worker who is completing a year of service at Our House, said.
“Recycle Bikes provides bicycles for us to keep in the Children’s Center for the kids when they play outside. Whenever the bikes need to be repaired, we call Recycle Bikes and they pick up the bicycles and either fix them up or bring other bicycles to replace them,” she said.
Recycle Bikes can even provide bikes to vision-impaired riders: Local bike shops repair tandem bikes that Recycle Bikes reserves for the Arkansas School for the Blind. “They can’t believe they’re getting to ride a bike,” said King, who has piloted tandems for visually impaired people on a number of occasions. “It’s something they never thought would be possible.”
When three-wheel adult tricycles come in, Recycle Bikes save them for Arkansas Children’s Hospital, which uses the trikes in a program addressing obesity in kids. “Some kids, they’re just too big to ride a bike. And they’ve never done any exercise. So a trike is a good place to start them,” King said.
Recycle Bikes is pedaling outside Central Arkansas, too. Board member Chris Schaffhauser, who runs the Tour da Delta bike ride in Helena-West Helena, sees a need in the Delta for bicycle advocacy. With Recycle Bikes and partners such as UPS and the state Parks and Tourism Department, Schaffhauser is working to give away 100 bikes to elementary school kids in Helena who want bikes but whose parents can’t afford them.
Even with the thousands of bikes given away by Recycle Bikes, there is potential for more. “You can see we have a lot of bikes,” King said. “What we never have enough of is volunteer labor. That’s our bottleneck. We give away 2,000 bikes. We could give away 3,000 if we had enough labor. But, we only have one paid employee, and that’s Nate. We have to rely on volunteers, and that’s what makes our program viable. We’re not out there trying to spend all our time fundraising.”
For would-be volunteers, bike repair skills are welcome, but not necessary. There are plenty of jobs to go around, from technical repairs to cleaning the newly refurbished bikes so that their new owners get bikes that look shiny and new. Experienced volunteers are eager to teach new volunteers how to repair the bikes.
Andy Gibson and his son, Grant, are two such volunteers. They have been coming every Saturday for a year to volunteer. “When [Grant] first started coming down here, he didn’t know much about fixing bikes. And he has developed really awesome bike repair skills,” Gibson said.
“He helps a lot of people. A lot of people come here wanting to volunteer, but they just don’t really know much about bike repair at all. And if they have something a little bit technical, he knows where all the tools are, he knows where all the parts are, he knows what tires and tube sizes go on what. The other day we were out mountain biking in Bentonville, and I jumped off this big drop and I didn’t land very well, and I busted my derailleur. And I was thinking, ‘Man, it’s gonna be expensive to take it to a bike shop.’ So we just ordered the exact part off Amazon and he put it on the bike for me.”
Helping kids learn a skill is one more dimension of Recycle Bikes’ program. “Some kids get exposed to bike repair or just tools in general very early — a lot of kids don’t,” King said. “And so we’re trying to get them some exposure. Cause you never know what their aptitude is going to be.”
Recycle Bikes’ mission resonates with donors, as well. “People keep these bikes, and they’re in garages, under houses, they’re everywhere,” said King. “People keep them because they remember their experience in them. They know there’s some value in there, they’re not sure how to get it out of them. And that’s what we do. We can take that bike, repair it, and it will be a new bike to a kid. The value they have in it is the experience and the fun they had on it, and to pass that along. We’re the vehicle to make that happen.”