Regent Park girls and trans workshop builds bikes, confidence

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Nathalie Pulla Abasto enjoys learning how brakes work and doing the wiring. (© Toronto Star)

On volunteering at Charlie’s…

Charlie’s Bike Joint is just East of Sherbourne on Queen Street in Toronto. My guess is that Queen and Sherbourne is one of the toughest corners in the city — lots of visible hard living. I started taking my sweet, sweet bike (circa ’86 Specialized Rockhopper) to Charlie’s for service about three years ago when I was commuting daily from the Beach to downtown.

I always really appreciated the service and the encouragement to keep my old bike on the road. Other bike shops would try to convince me the annual maintenance cost was not worth it and I should buy a new bike. That always bummed me out — especially when the sales person was younger than my bike. At Charlie’s it’s another story. There is total support and enthusiasm for maintaining and for learning. The mechanics are fair, patient and don’t mind sharing tips and tricks. Free air too!

The thing that always caught my eye was the space in back of the bike shop that appeared to be set up as a teaching facility. Over time I learned that The Bike Joint was the front end of another enterprise called Charlie’s Freewheels. It works like this — the bike joint earns revenue to pay its mechanics and other operating costs, and then donates it’s profits to Charlie’s Freewheels — which in turn helps kids from Regent Park and other neighbourhoods learn about bike building, maintenance and safety. There are a lot of other good things that happen in the process too. For example, there is often a meal served during each session. Nothing like a shared meal to break down barriers and stimulate conversation.

I completed my first volunteer shift on Monday in the Build a Bike program with four young bike mechanics building their own bikes from a combination of used and new components. I have to say it’s a remarkable experience learning about bicycle mechanics and about appreciative inquiry — since as a helper, my goal is to keep my hands off and keep their hands on. The way we do this is by asking good questions. It’s only been one shift but I feel committed and I know I will learn a lot of valuable lessons from the kids in the program and from Charlie’s great staff.

Oh, and the meal was fantastic.

One of the questions we face a lot in the social finance arena pertains to the replicability of community programs that are successful in one context e.g. can a bicycle program working in Regent Park be successfully replicated in another community or neighbourhood? While I’m volunteering at Charlie’s to learn about pulling wrenches, I’m really excited about the program questions we can explore in the process. sw

ps — credit to the Toronto Star for the photo above and the linked story – fantastic piece for the good folks at Charlie’s Freewheels.