Aaliyah, 7, runs to her mother for a hug. “My bike has a basket in front!” she exclaims with delight.
Aaliyah is one of more than 30 children, aged 7 to 14, who are earning their own bicycles this weekend at Cassiano Homes. “Earning” is the operative word, because Saturday the kids put their bikes together and received their helmets. On Sunday they'll have a lesson in bike safety and take ownership of their brand-new bikes. The concept is the brainchild of Earn-A-Bike founder Cristian Sandoval.
Ordinarily, the Earn-A-Bike experience happens just down the street for community members of all ages, at Earn-A-Bike Co-op headquarters on Guadalupe Street. But this weekend, it’s taking place in front of Jireh House, a nonprofit Christian pantry located at one end of the rather enormous, beige-washed low-income housing project known as Cassiano Homes. Many of the families there for the experience have learned about it through Jireh House, which provides food and clothing to in-need families on different days during the week.
The occasional neighborhood dog runs by – usually a chihuahua or a pit bull – and there is practically a non-stop procession of ice cream trucks slowing down as they pass the crowd during the afternoon. On the lawn, though, almost everyone is keeping his or her focus on the bikes. Kids who are earning bikes are paired with mentors who can help them build their bike, and parents are encouraged to step back and let their children take the lead so that they can be more invested in the learning experience.
One of the mentors today is Steve Abrams, whose Brooklyn accent is noticeable even after 30 years in San Antonio. He’s helping Desiree Juarez, 14, build her bike. She hasn't had a bike of her own since elementary school.
Abrams throws himself into the day’s activities. He has a very special, though tragic, reason for becoming a mentor. A year and a half ago, his 6-year-old grandson, Brandon, was killed on his bike right in front of his house by a driver who was texting and driving.
Abrams jumped into advocacy, working hard to get San Antonio’s distracted driving ordinance passed, and hoping for similar success on the state level. For now, he’s helping Juarez get everything squared away so she can ride. He learned about the Earn-A-Bike experience the other night on television, and said he immediately sent out word to the various bike clubs where he’s a member.
Raquel Rivera is the pantry director at Jireh House. A while back, she saw a little girl riding a 3-year-old scooter down the street, headed from the projects to her middle school, and asked her why she didn’t have a bike. Apparently her bike had been damaged or broken, so Rivera went home and thought of asking her daughters to donate their unused bikes to the housing complex.
It became her dream, and her family’s dream, that every family at Cassiano would have a bike. She started looking around for bikes to collect and donate, and one day saw some teenage boys riding new bikes that looked like what she imagined. She asked them where they got them, which led her to Sandoval. Soon, they were working together to bring the project to Cassiano.
By the end of the day, all the bikes were assembled, and there was a lesson on how to size and wear the appropriate helmet for bike safety. “They’re giving them helmets, too!” exclaimed one young mother.
Timothy Mulry, the City's Sustainable Transportation manager, was on hand at Saturday's event. His department donated the helmets. Sandoval has also brought Sharpies, in many colors, and the kids spend the last few minutes of the day customizing their helmets to make them truly theirs.
“We’re thankful for what life has given us,” Sandoval said. “And for having people in San Antonio who want us to help make this happen.”
As the sun sets on Saturday’s Earn-a-Bike experience, more than a few passersby have stopped and asked how they can participate. They’re too late for this time around, but Sandoval plans to schedule many more events that takes the Earn-A-Bike concept out into the community. In the meantime, bikes are packed away and children are admonished to take good care of what they’re already responsible for – and return tomorrow with their helmets, ready for bike inspection and that wonderful moment when they set out on the bike they’ve earned for the first time.
*Top/featured image: Cristian Sandoval talks helmet safety with the crowd, at the Earn-A-Bike Christmas program. Photo by Lily Casura.