Can a bicycle change the life of a young boy or girl living in the inner city projects?
The answer is yes if the child has to earn the bike, said Cristian Sandoval, the founder of the non-profit Earn-A-Bike Co-op located at 2619 Guadalupe Street on the city's Westside. The answer is no, he added, if you simply give a kid a bike, even a new bike.
"We will never give away a bike to a kid, that's not what we do," Sandoval said. "We make the kids earn their bike. There's a big difference."
Sandoval isn't the only one who thinks so. The two-year-old project he founded and manages with his partner, Arecely Garcia-Granados, first profiled on the Rivard Report in July (read, "With Earn-a-Bike, Locals learn and Teach Bike Community"), has drawn the attention of public health and housing officials, cycling enthusiasts and nonprofit workers serving the Westside.
Members of the diverse coalition are attracted to the unique aspects of the Earn-A-Bike program: a 12-hour introductory course that teaches children basic bike mechanics, tool use, riding skills, and bike appreciation. Successful completion leads to a child building and eventually owning his or her first bike, usually assembled from scavenged bikes and spare parts. That's followed by a six-month period when the program actively engages the children on and off the bikes, and includes classroom visits with their teachers to check on academic performance and home visits with parents, a single parent, or legally responsible adult.
"We see a real opportunity here for longitudinal studies to see how the program changes kids," said Dr. Thomas Schlenker, the director of the City's Metropolitan Health District. "We hope to fund Cristian to help open two additional Earn-A-Bike sites in 2015, one on the Eastside and one on the near-Southside. We have the money through our Medicaid-funded Neighborhood Health Strategy, which is brand new and will deliver $50 million to Metro Health to be spent on public health in San Antonio through 2016."
Schlenker and other city officials intend to use those federal funds to bring about much-needed transformative change in an inner city beset with adult and child obesity, Type II diabetes, and other lifestyle-driven afflictions. Earn-A-Bike, they say, holds great promise for reaching children before they establish lifelong patterns of poor choices.
Metro Health also is attracted by the broad alliance that Sandoval and Garcia-Granados have attracted to their program. Partners range from the San Antonio Housing Authority to Bike World and the Third Street Grackles, a community-invested, independent cycling team (Sandoval, Garcia-Granados, and I are members).
This weekend is a big one for Sandoval and his team of volunteers, who will be working with a large group of kids who live in Cassiano Homes, a 1950s-era public housing project on the Westside that is home to 500 families. The Rivard Report is chronicling their activities and helping them raise funds.
Jireh House, a faith-based community development and resource center that has operated at Cassiano Homes since 1995, helped identity 40 boys and girls who are coming together Saturday to help assemble new Trek Bikes provided by Bike World owners Whit and Cindi Snell.
If all goes according to plan, the volunteers will lead the 40 children on their first group ride through the projects on Sunday, with additional group rides scheduled each week through Christmas and into the new year as the boys and girls continue their commitment to the self-esteem building program. It promises to be a hopeful and joyful scene in the projects, a setting where hope and joy are scarce commodities in any season.
Cindi Snell, one of those volunteers, also rides on the Grackles team and serves as the unpaid executive director of the nonprofit San Antonio B-cycle bikeshare program. She's become one of the most effective leaders in the growing campaign to make San Antonio a bike-friendly city.
"The people at Jireh House, they know the residents, they know the kids. They feed them, they take care of them," Sandoval said. "And Cindi and Bike World gave us new bikes worth $320 for only $150, below their own wholesale cost. There are some amazing people making this happen."
More amazing people are still needed.
New bikes are not normally found at Earn-A-Bikes headquarters, a former crack house set on four lots that Sandoval and Garcia-Granados bought and cleaned up. The place has become a parklike safe haven in the neighborhood, one that also resembles a bicycle used parts warehouse.
Earn-A-Bike was given its first used bicycles out of VIA Metropolitan Transit's lost and found after VIA staffer Orlando Gallegos, also a Grackles team member, arranged for some of the many unclaimed bikes to be donated. Friday, Bexar County Deputy Frank Perez led a posse of sheriff's deputies to Earn-A-Bike with 50 more donated used bikes.
This weekend's event is the first involving new bikes. Even at such a sharp discount, this onetime Christmas season experiment by Sandoval and Garcia-Granados will test their abilities to fund such endeavors. When the project began, it appeared Metro Health would be able to provide funds, but Schlenker was unable on such short notice to cover the project costs.
Sandoval and Garcia-Granados are now reaching out to the community to raise the $7-8,000 they need to pay for the bikes, helmets and locks. The Rivard Report is funding one child's participation in the program at $200 and invites other interested readers to join us. Contributions are tax-deductible. Last week, Earn-A-Bike won a $1,000 Awesome SA grant.
The founding of Earn-A-Bike is both a love story an object lesson in how one startup can fail and morph into a more successful endeavor.
Sandoval and Garcia-Granados are both natives of Guatemala who first met there as small children. Both made their separate ways to careers in Mexico and without any further contact after childhood, both made their way to San Antonio about six years apart. They met through Acción Texas, the microlending non-profit that supports inner city small business initiatives.
I first met Sandoval at the Tripoint YMCA, where he as working part-time as a fitness instructor and came to know him better on long raining rides with the Grackles. Garcia-Granados became one of the team's top fundraisers for the annual Valero MS Ride.
The couple began a triathlete and fitness training camp for children at the University of Incarnate Word, but their intent to attract children from socio-economically disadvantaged families failed.
"We were only charging $40 to attend the camp, but we ended up attracting all these kids from Alamo Heights," Sandoval said. "We ended up becoming an inexpensive weekend baby-sitting service for well-to-do families."
One day while driving along Guadalupe Street on the Westside he saw the rundown, garbage strewn building and adjacent lots for sale, a vacant property frequented by drug dealers and users. Where others saw only blight, Sandoval felt inspiration. That was 2012, and in only two years something beautiful has taken root on Guadalupe Street.
Want to help? You can go to the Earn-A-Bike website and donate online or mail a check, or you can send a check made out to Earn-A-Bike to the Rivard Report at our Rand Building offices, 110 E. Houston St., Suite 600, San Antonio, TX 78205.
*Featured/top image: Members of the Bexar County Sheriff's Department deliver 50 bikes to Earn-A-Bike headquarters on the Westside. Courtesy photo.