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Teen Tune-Up

DreamBikes uses bicycle repair as a tool to teach teens skills they can take with them.

Photography by Hobe Brunson

Inside a bicycle repair shop on North Central Street in Knoxville, Jamesha Fain is hard at work giving a bike a tune-up.

“Sometimes you have to start from the beginning with an old bike,” she says. “You have to replace cables, clean them, change tires and tubes. Sometimes you clean or replace chains. People want a tune-up, so you go through the check list.”

Refurbishing bikes is second nature to her. However, that wasn’t always the case. She hasn’t always had this confidence. “I never thought I’d work with tools,” she says. “I didn’t learn to ride until I was ten and I loved it but I stopped a year later because I fell.”

It had been years since she had gotten on a bike, but you would never know it seeing how comfortable she is with them. Today, this 18-year-old provides bike tune-ups, quotes customers for repairs, fits neighbors for new rides, and educates them on accessories and brands. She leads community bike rides and spends her free time mountain biking.

“I used to have an issue where if something was hard, I would feel like I probably wouldn’t be able to do it or it would take me a lifetime to learn it,” she says, “but now I feel like I can do anything.”

And this is all thanks to the shop. This is all thanks to DreamBikes.

Partnering with the Club

Jamesha’s story may leave some to wonder how a simple bicycle repair shop could have such a profound impact on a teen. Teens at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley apply to the club’s YouthForce, a workforce development program that engages teens in different types of after-school and summer activities in order to prepare them for the workforce.

After attending YouthForce University, where students learn the nuances of being an employee, students go on to a 60-hour paid internship with one of several local businesses. And, if regular performance evaluations show that a student is excelling in the program, they will then be afforded a chance to participate in a 150-hour paid technical training internship. Having excelled in YouthForce’s 60-hour internship, Jamesha was placed at the DreamBikes. Although she had reservations, having not been on a bike in years, she went to work as one of the shop’s student interns.

Not Just a Repair Shop

As of early June, 10 students have made their way to the shop to learn new skills. The students are paid through two federal grants as part of YouthForce. “It’s a really fantastic level of technical skill that they’re able to give the kids,” says Rebecca McDonough, Director of YouthForce. “There are not a whole lot of jobs that you can go straight to and do something hands-on like this, especially right out of high school.”

But that’s the kicker: this isn’t your ordinary bike shop. The students come in after school Monday through Friday during the school year to work, while putting in longer days on Saturday. During the summer, those hours extend. They clock in, grab a bike, and get to work either refurbishing or parting out the unit. That knowledge comes from training with staff. Eventually the students work independently and simply use staff for questions when they get stuck.

But it isn’t all about the repairs. DreamBikes is taking training to the next level by giving students 360-degree participation in the business. Aside from repairing and refurbishing, they work with customers on the sales floor—fitting some for bikes and helping others find accessories—and with the store’s point of sale system. Students join staff at functions outside of the shop, promoting their work, doing presentations, and aiding in marketing and advertising for the business.

“We really try to ground them in every way of building and working in a business, getting the word out and figuring out as individuals what their strengths are,” says Preston Flaherty, the shop’s manager. “Then we kind of build their job around what they’re best at.”

Above all, these students are learning what it means to be reliable and model employees. “This YouthForce program is about bridging the gap between kids and those first job skills,” McDonough says.

Providing Youth with an Outlet

Aside from simply technical skills, the shop provides so much more for the teens involved. For one, it’s a safe haven, Flaherty says, providing them positive activities to focus on after school and in the summer. But moreover, it’s getting them connected to a healthy activity.

“A bicycle is a great way for these kids not only to hop on and go out to some safer places, but also to hang out with friends and get out of their house,” Flaherty says.

It also provides them an answer to a very real challenge in Knoxville. “One of the biggest barriers that forbids teens from working is that don’t have transportation,” McDonough says. “But DreamBikes introduces them to an entirely new way of getting around when many never considered the bike as a commuter vehicle. It establishes independence.”

And it instills in them a sense of accomplishment for the work they do, one they aren’t afraid to share. Having come from a job she dreaded going to every day, Jamesha is now proud of where she works.

“You have people who encourage you,” she says. “It makes you look at a job differently.”

Moving On Up

DreamBikes’ impact doesn’t stop when the students complete their 150 hours. DreamBikes may hire them on as mechanics in their shop. Currently, two on staff were former YouthForce students hired directly after their internship.

“Once they’re hired on with us and they’re employees of ours, we do all sorts of things with them from job shadowing to volunteer hours,” Flaherty says. “We help them with all their FAFSA paperwork and help get them through college.”

Flaherty is able to do this through a scholarship program that the organization runs. Every December, the nonprofit gives out scholarships to help their new employees pay for tuition, books, or whatever items they are in need of for school.

“I’ve always wanted to go, but I’ve always had the struggle of how I was going to pay for it,” Jamesha says. “I talked to my boss about it and they’re going to offer me a scholarship in December.” She already knows she will put it toward her tuition to study anthropology.

“DreamBikes is meant for kids to take their next step into the future,” Flaherty says. “Once they are seniors in high school and they graduate, we help them get out the door into their next step, whatever that might be.”

A Young Community Player

With the roaring success DreamBikes has already had in the Knoxville community, it’s hard to believe the Knoxville location (one of five in the United States) has only been around since January. “The community response has been incredible,” Flaherty says.

The original DreamBikes opened in Wisconsin. With the success of the original store, new stores have popped up, helping to fund the store that will come after it. Knoxville’s local chapter is the currently the only southern-based store.

“When you’re looking at a place to open up a DreamBikes, what you’re looking at is two things, one, you have to have kids that are in need. But two, you have to open up in an area where the community would support you,” Flaherty says.

Knoxville has proven to be the perfect fit. The only way the shop runs is if they receive donated bicycles. Flaherty says they work on anywhere from 40 to 50 bikes each week, proof that the community is aware of their existence. The DreamBikes team refurbishes those bicycles and puts them out on the sales floor at a low cost along with accessories of all kinds, such as helmets, chains, clothes, and shoes. This funding raised, along with the money earned by doing tune-ups and that which is secured through grants and other fundraising means, is what helps pay for overhead and staff. And a small team of volunteers puts in their time to fill the gaps.

Herak Patel, a University of Tennessee student and volunteer with the organization, says he happily donates time a couple times a week. “The kids that work there are wonderful. They love what they’re doing,” he says. “It’s a great learning experience for them because they have the opportunity to work in a safe, but also rewarding environment. I wish I had this when I was in high school.”

Getting Involved

In exchange for this community support, DreamBikes ensures that they give back to the community that supports them. “We have a mobile repair van that we take to moderate to low income neighborhoods and fix kids’ bikes,” Flaherty says. “The point of that is to get kids riding safe bikes.”

They bring along with them a few refurbished bikes from the shop and if a child approaches them with what Flaherty can only describe as a “rust bucket,” the DreamBikes team will give the child a new one. They have a goal to give out 100 bikes a year; Flaherty says he’s already given out 120, primarily to programs serving youth, such as the The Refuge Center, the YMCA, and the Boys and Girls Club. And this brings their work full circle.

“They do great mentoring for our kids,” McDonough says. We’re really proud to be a program partner with DreamBikes.”

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