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Bikes for Peru - and beyond

BY CAROLINE EGGERS - ceggers@perutribune.com

Life Cycle is on a roll.

The program launched by the Miami County Systems of Care Governance Coalition last February has not only put 45 local folks in need on safe, reliable bikes, but could be replicated in Huntington. 

Several representatives from the city of Huntington – including Mayor Brooks Fetters – joined the Life Cycle creator, coordinators and the owner of Breakaway Bike and Fitness at his shop in Peru on Monday to see how it all comes together. 

“You don’t want people not getting on a good path in life just because they don’t have just basic transportation,” Fetters said. 

SOCGC Local Systems Coordinator Antonia Sawyer founded the program after witnessing one of her previous clients receive a free bicycle from her grandfather, who worked at the sheriff’s department in Kokomo.

Lightbulbs went off, and Sawyer took the idea to the three people that could make the program happen: Peru Police Department Chief Mike Meeks, Main Street United Methodist Church Pastor Lauren Hall, and Breakaway Bikes Owner Zac See.

The Peru Police Department collects stolen or lost bikes, and used to store them until the YMCA’s annual bike auction. Now, if no one claims a bike within 60 days, Meeks will turn over the bike to See.

See replaces parts, tunes up the brakes, and ensures that the bikes are both functioning properly and built to last – the labor all on his own time and charitable will – before sending the bikes over to the church with Hall.

Hall stores the newly refurbished bicycles, and helps vet each person obtaining his or her new ride. The program “is making people whole,” she said.

And Sawyer collects funds for the program from local donors. The Community Foundation was the largest donor, while United Way of Miami County and the Peru Lions Club added $500 each.

The program allocates $75 per bike, but they’ve been spending on average about $39. “You can make a lot of stuff happen for very few dollars,” See said.

A large part of the program’s success is thanks to See’s bicycle expertise and willingness to take on extra work, according to his fellow program coordinators.

For See, the issue is personal. He received two DUIs himself in the past, and is familiar with the path to recovery from addiction.

“It was a convenient way for me to pay back,” See said. “Not to get lovey dovey mushy on anybody, but it is what it is. That’s a big reason why I said, ‘Yeah, I’m into all this.’”

“If we didn’t have him, I don’t know where we’d be,” said Chief Meeks. “He may be the most important piece of the whole thing.”

“Zac is putting quality pieces on the bikes and they are safe to ride,” Sawyer said. “Whoever is fixing these bikes needs to really make sure that they’re putting quality into it, because you don’t want anyone getting hurt. I like giving people reliable, safe transportation.”

Owning a method of transportation can translate into greater life successes, whether it’s making an appointment, receiving treatment, serving a probation sentence, or getting to work every day, Sawyer said.

In Huntington, Fetters hopes that forming a similar program could also bring people a little happiness.

“I want to help get someone on a bike, and ride, and enjoy that,” Fetters said. “We have a growing trail system, and that’s all designed to help with the community for people to go from neighborhoods to work places.”

At the Huntington Police Department, they have at least 60 bikes already, according to Huntington Community Engagement Volunteer Coordinator Andrew Rensberger, and that was after they auctioned off 100 bikes last spring. They collect an average of 100 stolen bikes each year.

Even what some may consider “junk Walmart bikes” that end up in the stolen bike storage, could be decent bikes with the proper assembly, See said.

“I like the old vintage 10 speeds that nobody rides anymore,” Fetters said.

“They’ll ride them if they’re in need of a bike,” Sawyer said. “We’ve given a few of them away.”

They had a granny bike with a basket – that they thought they’d never get rid of – but one woman walked in and cried and said “That’s my bike,” according to Sawyer.

“Who doesn’t like a new bike? We’re all kids at heart,” Fetters said.

To get a bike with Life Cycle, interested individuals must provide a referral from someone who isn’t a friend or family member, with her or his own letterhead that explains why the individual would benefit from the bike.

Sawyer said it’s nothing personal, just a simple reference saying “Hey, I’ve been working with Joe, he would really benefit.”

“We didn’t want to turn anyone away,” Sawyer said, but they made a plan so they wouldn’t simply be handing out bikes left and right or have them end up getting stolen again.

Applicants also must be 16 or older and bring a license or a state ID showing a Miami County address.

“We wanted to create minimal red tape,” Sawyer said. “We didn’t want to make it so hard that (Life Cycle) wasn’t being utilized.”

Another way to obtain a reference is to undergo the Miami County Works soft skills employment course, which helps people work on resumes, interview practice, and other useful job skills.

Hall said there has been very little abuse of the program, and only regrets handing out bikes to three out of the 45 people. For the majority, “they genuinely need a bike,” she said.

Life Cycle also offers helmets if the individuals request them, but they don’t simply hand out the resource if someone doesn’t have the intention of using it. However, they do sign safety waivers regardless, Sawyer said.

The program coordinators also make sure that the individuals taking the bikes are able to ride.

One girl had a prosthetic limb and didn’t initially have the strength to pedal safely. But Hall sent her to Breakaway Bikes to strengthen her leg on the indoor cycling machines.

See also offers a free class on how to take care of bikes, and sells locks for $10 at Breakaway to prevent the bikes from being stolen again.

To spread the word, program coordinators utilized social media to reach their target audience, and had courts, schools and police officers refer individuals to the employment workshop or directly to Life Cycle.

“The bikes are useless sitting in the church,” Sawyer said. “We market it as much as we can.”

It took a little while to get going, but the program is rolling now.

“You’re going to feel a change in the community,” Sawyer said. “It feels good.”