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Chain reaction

Shaw bike program teaches self-sufficiency

(Published June 30, 2003)


Staff Writer

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, manager Dave Moskovitz and Eric Welp keep themselves busy, working on repairs and conversing with the neighborhood kids who filter in and out of the Chain Reaction Youth Bike Shop.

Many of the young people – like Tierra, who earned her bike while volunteering at the Shaw bike shop – stop in to talk with Welp about future bike rides.

The Youth Bike Shop is just one of the many components of Chain Reaction, a program that aims to educate youth on the role biking has in maintaining a healthier workforce and environment, and in building a sustainable community.

"Biking is cheaper, easier and you get around just as fast," said 19-year-old Jimmy Talley as he got ready to work for the afternoon. Talley has been involved with Chain Reaction for the past two years. This summer he’ll be working 25 hours a week as a paid mechanic. Talley, whose bike is his primary mode of transportation, said he usually participates in a group ride around the city once a week.

The Youth Bike Shop, whose walls and shelves are completely filled with spare bike parts, wheels and tools will be open for repairs about 30 hours a week this summer. Bike parts are also sold. Due to lack of shop space, Chain Reaction holds bike sales only about four times a year. The most recent was held on June 28.

The original idea for the shop was designed by a group of students from the Ecodesign Corps, an organization affiliated with EcoVillage, who had done a transportation study of the Shaw neighborhood and found biking to be a clean and safe transportation component for building a sustainable community. A business plan was then drawn up with the help of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business Professor Robert J. Beis and his students.

The store first operated out of basements until the Youth Bike Shop opened its doors on May 5, 2001. Participants in the program say the shop provides a useful and affordable service in a neighborhood where most of the residents are reliant upon their bikes to get them around. Prior to the Youth Bike Shop’s opening, there were no bike shops and very few employment opportunities for high school kids in the area.

Through the Chain Reaction program, younger kids are able to take an earn-a-bike class and spend volunteer time in the shop learning about mechanics, bike upkeep, safety and environmental awareness – after which they are able to earn their own bike. Courses for older teenagers encompass more advanced mechanics such as repairing and overhauling brakes, gears and hubs and learning how to assemble a bike. During the summer Chain Reaction holds two three-week summer camp programs, which include rides around the city. Chain Reaction also organizes city bike rides year round.

The overall goal is to "get ’em while they’re young," said Noel Petri, EcoVillage’s outreach and development coordinator.

EcoVillage has many long-term goals for the Chain Reaction program, which include expanding the program into Southeast Washington and becoming citywide. Yet, firming up the educational program and expanding shop space are the immediate priorities.

"First thing I’d like to do is expand it to meet the demand right now," said Welp, Chain Reaction’s program director.

Many classes are held in the shop itself. Welp emphasized the challenge of fulfilling Chain Reaction’s goals of continuing the educational process by holding "classes in a class environment" and finding more sites. Sustainable business is another priority, which means being able to keep the store open and selling bikes on a regular basis. EcoVillage also hopes to be able to soon hire full-time employees and to extend the shop’s hours.

"The more we can be self-sufficient, the better the education program can be," Welp said.

Mike Hill, executive director of EcoVillage, said the bike shop needs to be open to serve neighbors who have no other option than bicycling to get to work and around the city. One of the goals is to expand the shop in order for it to be supported without outside funding. Currently, Chain Reaction relies on contributions from more than 40 companies and foundations.

"Funding is always a challenge," said Hill, who along with the other staff members at EcoVillage feels that doing a better job of getting people to understand sustainability is a key component of the program. "This is not a liberal has to be a human issue," stated Hill, who emphasized that a dirty, toxic environment is something that affects everyone.

This summer, the Youth Bike Shop will employ eight teenagers through the D.C. Department of Employment Services. All of them will work as youth mechanics in the shop. The bike shop also has a list of more than 250 volunteers.

One of the volunteers – Saul, a pastry chef at the Willard Hotel – said he has always been into bikes since his stepfather raced in the 1968 Olympic games. During the off-season at the hotel, he volunteers his time working on bike repairs.

The Chain Reaction Youth Bike Shop is located at 1701 Sixth St. NW. Chain Reaction welcomes volunteers and contributions of bikes and bike parts. The shop accepts bike donations along with a $5 cash contribution.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator