Bikes are on a Roll in Regent Park
Caitlin Carlisle and Zoe Hayes are both slightly surprised by the success of Charlie's Freewheels
, a volunteer-based community program they help run that focuses on teaching bike mechanics and career development to Regent Park youth. "I actually first heard about the idea at the Hen House, a bar just down the street from here," Zoe tells me over a bowl of Vietnamese Pho at the Phoenix Restaurant on the corner of Sheridan and College. "I ran into my old high-school friend Emma Mcilveen-Brown, who I hadn't seen for years. She told me about her idea for Charlie's Freewheels and we ended up talking about it all night."
The idea was to form a community program in memory of Emma's close friend, Charlie Prinsep, a passionate cyclist from Cabbagetown, who was hit and killed by a truck on a bike trip from San Diego to Toronto in the summer of 2007. "I think Emma's energy and enthusiasm was what was most appealing about the idea," Zoe recalls. "It was like, 'This girl is gonna make things happen.'"
The enthusiasm was infectious. Zoe mentioned the idea to Caitlin, another old friend and avid cyclist, who immediately signed on. "It seemed like it had a lot of potential," Caitlin says. She works as a welder and renovator and has a long history of volunteer work. "Vague, ramshackle, sure--but full of potential."
What followed was a series of meetings -- with bike mechanics, with friends, and friends of friends, of Charlie's -- and less than a year later, in the summer of 2009, Charlie's Freewheels launched a seven week pilot program, fueled by donations from Scotiabank, Mountain Equipment Coop, and a number of private sources. Twelve youth participants from Regent Park were each given a used bike (most of them reaped from door-to-door solicitations in the Annex) and met twice a week for three hours at Bike Pirates
, a volunteer-run cyclist organization at Lansdowne and Bloor, where they worked on and learned about their bikes with two professional mechanics. At the end of the program, each participant took home a bike and a new set of skills.
"The idea is not so much that the kids become bike mechanics after they've finished the program," Caitlin says. "It's that they get a bike and have learnt how to do basic maintenance on it. And it also introduces them to the world of cycling. So if they have an aptitude or an interest in mechanics, they can go that way. Or if they like organizing, or dealing with retail, they're able to explore those things, too."
Charlie's Freewheels is now in its second run, and the youth involved are playing a big part in shaping the program. "I would like to think that the program is designed to create a different way of relating to young people," Zoe says. She holds a degree in Community Education and as a day job runs an after school arts program at the Ralph Thornton Community Centre in South Riverdale. Her education and teaching experience have helped her to nurture the collaborative aspect of the program.
"Because Freewheels is completely separate from school, it's something that the young people choose to be a part of, and they're given a lot of responsibility. What's been really important so far is making sure that they are driving the direction of what they learn and how they learn it."
The youth participants help with writing grants, working on the Charlie's Freewheels website, planning events, and discussing and preparing the future direction of the program. "They've brought their own skills and have really enriched what we're doing," Caitlin says. "Pushed the program in directions that it wouldn't have gone otherwise."
In the next year, Charlie's Freewheels aims to develop paid internships in bike shops or community high school organizations for the participants after they've finished the program, which would enable them to utilize the skills they've picked up in professional work atmospheres. A longer term goal -- and a prospect that both the youth and volunteers are extremely excited about -- is to open a bike shop in Regent Park.
"Something probably like Bike Pirates," Zoe explains. "Something that is not necessarily a commercial shop, but that could provide youth from the program with the opportunity to do internships in the shop, and learn in the shop, as well as affordable repairs and maintenance for cyclists in Regent Park."
A Regent Park bike shop may still be a long way away, but Charlie's Freewheels is showing no signs of fading. The enthusiasm and collaborative energy that propelled a hopeful idea into a functioning community organization continues to push the program forward. "It's fun, and we get to work with people we really like," Caitlin says. "And there's always the possibility of making whatever you want to happen, happen." Jules Lewis lives in Toronto. His first novel, Waiting for Ricky Tantrum, will be published in fall 2010 by Dundurn Press.