Community Bike Works

Community Bike Works

You never forget your first time on a bicycle.

Not riding in circles on three wheels in the driveway or graduating to cul-de-sac loops on four, but the instant after a patient parent lets go and the moments that follow when you realize you’re on your own, balancing on two wheels, and you can go anywhere as quickly – or slowly – as you wish. For most of us, this was our first taste of freedom and independence, and after a few skinned knees and wobbly starts, we’d certainly earned it. (Of course, after a few years, four wheels started to look appealing again!)

That pivotal first dip into autonomy and accomplishment is only the tip of the iceberg of what the non-profit organization Community Bike Works in Allentown has set out to give their youth participants.

“Bikes are the hook we use to get kids in the door because everyone can remember their first bike and what it meant for them to be able to ride – the independence of transportation and the fun,” Community Bike Works executive director Kim Schaffer says. “A lot of our kids come in not knowing how to ride a bicycle and never having ridden one before.”

The organization, which started in 1995, will celebrate its 20th anniversary this summer. Their mission is to provide “inner-city children living in at-risk situations with meaningful work ethic alternatives to gangs, drugs, and the streets. We use bicycles, peer role models, and adult mentors to develop and nurture relationships and to engage youth; and once engaged, influence their behavior and their outlook about school and life.”

Every year, a total of 300 students pass through the doors of Community Bike Works and take part in their flagship Earn-A-Bike program. At the start of the program, they pick out a bike from the non-profit’s collection of donated two-wheelers in various stages of disrepair and get to work. In 12 weeks, they spend their afternoons in small groups with three other students, youth volunteers or apprentices, and adult mentors tinkering away to make their toys as good as new.

Three months later, both the bikes and the children find themselves transformed. “Not only are they learning how to fix their bike, but they’re learning work ethic skills, perseverance and communication,” Schaffer says. During the program, they learn bike mechanics and safety, but more than that, Schaffer notes, they learn the value of teamwork, the responsibility of showing up, and the reward of not giving up. As 17-year-old Earn-A-Bike program participant Kyle puts it, “Community Bike Works is more than learning how bikes work. It’s learning how life works.”

Another benefit of the program is that it also emphasizes the value of health and fitness, an important interest for children to embrace in a world of convenience foods where more and more of our entertainment and employment options come from technology that encourages sedentary behavior. Once the bikes are safe to ride, the children are outfitted with a new helmet and together, they tackle the trails in Trexler Park. However, exercise is just one piece of the puzzle. “We also try to teach healthy eating skills,” Schaffer says. Every week, a volunteer comes to give an afternoon cooking demonstration, providing the children with healthy snacks and knowledge to make smarter choices in the kitchen.

Three months later, both the bikes and the children find themselves transformed.

After students have completed the Earn-A-Bike program, they’re also eligible to participate in a host of other programs until they turn 18.

Two of these programs are the Earn-A-Book and Afternoon Drop-In programs. In the Earn-A-Book program, students receive one-on-one tutoring and participate in reading and writing projects designed to nourish enthusiasm and competence in reading. After clocking 18 hours, they earn a trip to the bookstore where they can pick out a book of their choice. During the Afternoon Drop-In, students bond with their adult mentors in a less structured setting and participate in bike rides, field trips, visits from guest speakers, and arts and crafts. All of the programs are offered at no cost to the children’s families.

Throughout all of the non-profit’s programs, the children and their development and potential remain the focus. “We’re not about the bikes as much as we are about the kids,” Schaffer says. She considers how often she hears from students that Community Bike Works is like a second family to be one of the organization’s biggest accomplishments.

“Community Bike Works is all about the community,” says Michelle, a 12-year-old student who completed the Earn-A-Bike program. Now, she has returned as a veteran to take part in the Youth Leadership program. Once students earn their wheels, they’re eligible to return as youth volunteers, where they receive additional training on bike mechanics and leadership, as well as the chance to give back to the non-profit.

The capstone of the organization is the Youth Apprentice program, in which youth volunteers like Michelle return once they’re at least 14 years old earn their very first paychecks as Community Bike Works staff members. At Community Bike Works, children are equipped to grow into valuable members of their local communities, and it’s because of also these communities that such growth is possible.

Community Bike Works is always looking for donations of any bike in any condition, as well as volunteer mentors. “You don’t have to know anything about bike mechanics,” Schaffer assures. “We welcome anyone who wants to connect with students.”

To learn more about how you can get involved with Community Bike Works, visit them online at or call 610.434.1140.

Photo by Sabotta Imagery Photography

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