Mini Case Study: How to resurrect a social service cut by tight government budgets
In 2006, residents of Arlington, VA were close to losing an after-school program that taught kids how to fix bikes. Community Spokes, as the program was known then, recruited economically disadvantaged students to learn bicycle mechanics, at once offering an after-school activity and an employable trade. The program was run by an employee of Arlington County and funded by a federal grant. It wasn’t meeting certain federal criteria for attendance, so the program lost its funding. But Arlington residents didn’t give up on the program so easily.
A small group of residents and cycling enthusiasts had an alternative vision: they would re-open the shop as an independent nonprofit. Together, the group worked to open what would become Phoenix Bikes, named after the mythical bird that symbolizes rebirth. The group met many times with supporters at the Arlington County Board, who in the end let Phoenix continue to operate, for free, in the same spot as before – a squat concrete building that looks more like an oversized tool shed than a bike shop. The group also tried to persuade the county to support the program with an $8,000 annual grant.
Phoenix’s founders needed more than money, though. In order to operate, they needed legal recognition as a corporation. That would take time. In order to get the re-imagined program up and running, the founders looked to the Greenbrier Learning Center, an after-school tutoring program in Arlington that, legally speaking, took Phoenix under its wing as Phoenix waited for formal incorporation.
The work seems to have paid off. The county, at least to this point, has continued funding Phoenix with the $8,000 grant. It has also allowed the nonprofit to stay in its concrete shanty, rent-free. Phoenix is also now an independent corporation.
More important though is what Phoenix has grown into.
Phoenix has had as many as 60 student volunteers each year, though Executive Director Kelly Auer says the numbers have dropped to a level the organization can realistically accommodate. One facet of Phoenix is the earn-a-bike program, in which students volunteer 25 hours of their time in exchange for a free bike. In those hours, they learn to identify the parts of a bike, how a bike operates, and basic bike repair skills. After this initial volunteering period, students, if still interested, can pursue one of three additional volunteer programs, including advanced bike mechanics. If they continue to volunteer, students are rewarded with store credit, which they can use to buy more bikes and bike parts.
But where do all these bikes and parts come from? Residents from the region donate their bikes – in hoards, it turns out. Phoenix has so many donations, in fact, that the shop at night is filled almost to the entrance with bikes, which volunteers and staff then move out front in the morning.
This bounty allows Phoenix to fix up and sell used bikes and parts to the public, all of which come at a highly discounted price. And because students work as volunteer mechanics in the shop, Phoenix can give tune-ups and other fixes at a bargain. The organization prides itself on not only providing this very valuable service to the thrifty bike shopper, but on teaching often-disadvantaged kids to be skilled entrepreneurs. And that service, according to Auer, heavily resonates with locals, who are happy to help a good cause by donating their bikes or time.
“In the community it’s inspirational that we’re providing an outlet for kids,” she said. “We’re giving kids confidence that life isn’t so desperate. I think it’s a community spirit, giving youth a chance.”