TINKERING WITH TIRES, ADJUSTING BRAKES AND DISASSEMBLING BICYCLE CHAINS might not be the way many eighth-graders spend time after school. But for Amarion Morgan, 14, using his hands and newfound knowledge of fixing bikes has unlocked a keen interest in basic mechanics — not to mention a can-do spirit and camaraderie with his siblings who join him in the effort.
“The more I stay, the more I learn,” Amarion says of his time at Elyria Bicycle Education Center, an organization that Ed Stewart founded in June 2017 with a modest volunteer staff. The 408 Middle Ave. shop, just a couple of blocks south of Elyria’s Ely Square, is a bike co-op that accepts donated bicycles and bike-related items, fixes bikes by teaching the repair techniques, offers education and hosts citywide rides.
Amarion started showing up after school when an older brother told him about it. Then, he got hooked and invited his three younger sisters to come along. “It gives the kids an opportunity to learn something, and it’s within walking distance from our home,” says their mother, Tabitha Morgan. “They really enjoy it, and they’re bonding with each other.”
“I firmly believe in giving people the power to take care of their own bikes — and it doesn’t matter how old a person is or what kind of bike they bring in, we say, ‘Let’s figure it out,’” Stewart relates.
The attitude is contagious. Amarion’s younger sister, Taylianna Kimbro, 10, says, “I try to work on some of the small bikes so I can achieve on those and then get to do the bigger bikes — change tires and fix them.”
One day, the “baby sister” of the group, Talaiah Kimbro, 9, spotted a bike in the shop and fell in love. It was a sleek, pink-and-lime-green cruiser that Amarion thought had her name written all over it. Ed shares, “He started working on it with his other two sisters — he wanted to fix up the bike.”
During this time, some youth program students (ages 18 to 24) involved in the Lorain County Community Action Agency were learning at the shop, too. Bobby Taylor, youth services coordinator, set up a work experience through Stewart and the bike co-op. The 10 students involved also helped fix up the bike.
Beyond all the skills learned by the youth or anyone who stops into the bike center, Taylor says, the intangibles make the deepest impression. “They learn the value of giving,” he says, “and those moments go far beyond turning a wrench.”
FILLING THE GAP
For years, Stewart wanted to start a bicycle co-op in Elyria, a market that has gone without a bike shop for as long as he can recall. He noticed more cyclists in town, and already he and some enthusiasts had started a group called Bike Elyria, which organizes and hosts rides around the city.
“The purpose is to familiarize people with Elyria — we know it’s a good place to ride a bike,” Stewart relates. “Not everyone believes that because they see the traffic situation differently than we do. The goal of that group has been to help people discover new neighborhoods, which has really been a great thing.”
Stewart, who’s lived in Elyria since 1972, says he has discovered streets just blocks from his neighborhood that he never explored. “We uncover unique areas of town,” he says. “The whole purpose is for people to discover the city and realize they can ride anywhere they want.”
A couple of years ago, a supporter offered seed money, which Stewart used to find a location on Elyria’s south side. Then, Stewart started sending out letters to friends and fellow cyclists. Bike donations started “flowing in,” he says, adding that the Elyria Police Department promotes the co-ops efforts. Since June 2017, about 450 bikes have been donated and refurbished.
The bike co-op, which is open to the public, runs lean, with six volunteer “staff.” Members pay $3 per month to come and work on their bikes with the assistance of co-op mechanics and tools. “They can tinker with their bikes or help us out with the ones we’re working on,” Stewart says.
Last year, Stewart and the Bike Elyria gang merged their group with Elyria Bicycle Education Center, making the nonprofit entity a one-stop-shop for donating a bike, fixing a bike, buying a used or repaired bike or connecting with other cyclists to enjoy biking together.
And, there’s another, deeper layer to the organization that Stewart didn’t necessarily expect.
“When we opened, I thought we’d attract people who love bicycles as much as we do, and we quickly found out that’s not the case at all,” Stewart says with a warm laugh. “Serving the south Elyria market, we realized very quickly that there are people here who absolutely depend on a bicycle for transportation, and when that ‘vehicle’ breaks down, they are in trouble. They need to get to school, work or the store to buy groceries. We didn’t think about this aspect much when we first got into it, but once we realized (it), we said, ‘Boy, this is really what we’re all about here.’”
Betsy Miles, the bike co-op’s treasurer, has lived in Elyria most of her life. “Every bike that comes in and is donated has a story to it,” she says. She loves listening to those stories and connecting with people who stop in and need bike repairs or a bike to get around.
“There is one woman who rides from Elyria to Lorain every day to work on her bicycle,” Miles relates.
That dependence on a bike for transportation imparts new urgency to the organization’s work. “I’ve had a number of occasions where someone will push a bike (through) the door and say, ‘I’ve got to get to work on Monday; what can you do?’ and it was a Saturday,” Stewart explains. “When a person brings in a bike and says they have to get to work, we drop everything to help.”
There are plenty who stop in to talk shop or gain insights, such as a couple who were visiting from Denmark, Miles describes. They bought a couple of refurbished bikes to explore the city during their stay. “They toured the area and then donated the bikes back to the shop before they flew back home to Denmark,” Miles says
TURNING A WRENCH, MAKING A DIFFERENCE
“Ed is an open book,” says Taylor, of the Lorain County Community Action Agency, sharing how teaching is part of Stewart’s nature. The 10 youth who participated in a work experience learned everything from how to fix brakes to customer service and inventory control.
“They also learned these skills are transferable,” Taylor says, relating that lightbulbs went off in students’ minds when they realized they could apply these skills to wheelchairs.
“A lot of our youth are kinesthetic learners,” he explains. “They learn by doing. They saw the condition of bikes that came into the shop, and they know they are a vital part of the end result. There’s a direct correlation between their efforts and the final product.”
The program was funded through Ohio Means Jobs, and the youth treated their time at Elyria Bicycle Education Center like a job, with benefits they probably didn’t expect. “A lady would come in with a bike and need repairs. Our youth would help out, and she would give them a hug — they could see the value in themselves,” Taylor says. “Their self-esteem just grew knowing that they have a skill that is important and is changing the way people transport around the city, the way people shop, the way people go to work, the way people live.”
Stewart, a former educator, loves the process of identifying a problem and solving it alongside a volunteer or patron. He encourages, “Let’s figure it out.”
He calls his teaching method “reverse streaming.”
“We identify the problem, I show them a tool that will help fix the problem, then I fix the problem,” he describes. “Then, I unfix the problem and hand the tool to them. I say, ‘See you in 10 minutes,’ and they have to fix it themselves. That is how you learn.”
The unfixing is an important part of learning.
Amarion’s sister, Talaija Ibera, 12, says before she brought a bike home from the co-op, Stewart “broke it down for me and had me fix it to be sure I learned.”
Stewart points out, “It gives you the feeling, ‘I can do this.’”
That’s exactly the feeling Westwood Middle School math teacher Todd Church wants students in his STEAM classes to gain. He is working with Stewart and the Elyria Bicycle Education Center on a partnership that will bring a bike maintenance lab to the school.
“This is a natural fit for a collaboration within the community,” Church says, relating that Stewart will “show us the ropes of how to maintain and fix bikes” and students will “do something productive and serve their community.”
The idea is that a sort of branch of the bike coop could exist within the school. “We have the vision of making a station where kids can bring in a bike, we can identify what needs to be fixed and train the kids on basic repairs and adjustments,” Church says. Also, students could take apart donated bikes to salvage parts to donate back to the center.
“If we find kids that are really interested, we can direct them to the Elyria Bicycle Education Center, where they can take it to another level through the programs they offer,” Church says.
Currently, Church and STEAM co-teacher Scott Hamker are working out details with the Elyria Bicycle Education Center.
Meanwhile, the Lorain County Community Action Agency’s new Youth Center — a two-story building behind its administrative office in downtown Lorain — will open a hybrid bicycle shop/co-op in late June. Following the work experience at the Elyria Bicycle Education Center last year, Taylor says the agency saw an opportunity to develop a program on its site.
The youth center’s bike co-op will provide repairs for Go Lorain’s bike-share rental bicycles. Through the Lorain Public Library, Lorain County Metroparks and Lorain Public Health District, this program allows people to check out bikes with a library card. “Our role will be to repair those bikes at our shop,” Taylor says.
“People can also come in and volunteer to earn bicycles, pay a fee to get their bikes repaired or buy helmets and accessories,” Taylor says.
This youth development initiative is designed to expose more young people involved at the agency to a valuable, hands-on skill. Stewart provided a two-week intensive training experience to gear up youth volunteers for the new shop, aside from the internship program into which some youth tapped last year to provide direct service and learn the business. Stewart says of the training and experience at his co-op: “They are learning about tools — they are learning how to work on bikes and how to work.”
RIDING ON AMBITION
Stewart’s passion is showing people how bicycles are a pathway to independence — how bikes are a ticket to exploring the region and touring the world beyond it. A bike is plain-and-simple transportation, yet it’s so much more.
He goes back to his days of running Stewart Advertising, a local business he operated for 30 years. Deadline pressure created stress every day. “I came home and, after working 12 hours, I could get on my bike and, in one block, all that went away,” he relates.
“Cycling allows you to concentrate on that moment,” he continues. “You are looking for traffic and making other observations — you are breathing in fresh air. It’s a very pleasant and energetic activity. And because you can go just about anywhere, at a slower pace, you have to observe things differently than you do in a car. You notice the details. You appreciate what’s around you much more when you’re on a bike.”
Stewart has ridden a bike from his Elyria home to Chicago. He did a circle tour around Lake Erie and cycled to Niagara Falls. He also rode to Columbus. “I enjoy long trips because they are demanding and challenging,” he says.
In some ways, running a fledgling bike co-op that’s a first in his area is the same way. The response from the community is telling Stewart and his dedicated team that all the good work at the modest Middle Avenue shop is making a positive impact.
Take Amarion, who says he likes being able to fix a bike if it has a problem. When he figured out how to “true” a tire so it won’t wiggle, he felt awfully proud. He counts about 20 bikes he’s helped fix so far at the shop. “I am learning a lot.”