In our modern era of overwhelmingly rapid technological advancement, children are spending more time interacting virtually and less time participating in physical activity in the natural world. A great number of youth spend hours in front of television and computer screens battling bosses and solving intricate puzzles, yet when confronted with a hands-on difficulty, such as changing a bicycle tire, will find themselves stumped. And while many individuals may feel a sense of accomplishment when they beat a challenging game, the true worth of the feat is also merely virtual. The reality is that playing video games does little to increase opportunities for at-risk children in urban communities.
Enter Neighborhood Bike Works, a non-profit organization primarily focused on empowering youth through bicycling. Located in the basement of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, NBW seeks to involve youth in a hands-on learning experience in a community of volunteers and peers who believe in their potential. "Our mission," says executive director Andy Dyson, "is to increase opportunities for youth through bicycling. What we’re doing is giving more kids an opportunity to ride a bicycle and to learn the skills of safe riding and fixing a bike. But the point of it goes beyond that, it’s really about youth development."
NBW was originally established in 1996 as an offshoot of the Bicycle Coalition of the Delaware Valley. In 1999, NBW emerged as its own separate organization. Currently, NBW serves the Philadelphia community at three locations: the headquarters at 3916 Locust Walk, the Haddington Neighborhood Shop at 230 North Salford Street, and the recently opened Bike Salon near Temple University at 1426 West Susquehanna Avenue.
NBW’s primary youth program, Earn-a-Bike, provides the space for youth to develop skills and earn something they can be proud of, a bicycle of their own. The program involves 8-12 youth who come into the shop twice a week for a period of 7-8 weeks. During each session, individuals work along side their peers and trained volunteers to work on fixing their bicycle. If the student is dedicated and works diligently, he or she will ride out of the last session on a bicycle they built themselves. After students have successfully completed the Earn-a-Bike program, they may choose to get involved in other programs such as NBW’s Entrepreneur and Leadership groups, the Bike racing team, advanced mechanic classes, or youth employment through NBW.
While the youth programs revolve around bicycling, there is a greater force that pulls young people into its orbit. It’s the force of self-empowerment through community learning. "It’s not just about fixing a bike," Dyson says, "it’s about a love of learning. Kids are a resource to the neighborhood and are the future of the city, that’s what we’re focused on … how we have changed and impacted the lives of children."
While NBW’s principle focus in the empowerment of youth, the organization also offers several adult programs that supplement the youth programs. The largest of these is Bike Church. Originally it’s own separate organization, Bike Church merged with NBW in 1999 to form the only major bike co-op in Philadelphia. Bike Church utilizes the church basement as a bike repair space, equipped with the tools and parts needed to properly repair and tune up bicycles. During each session, individuals are welcome to bring and work on their bikes in the space provided. Several trained volunteer facilitators are present to assist and provide knowledge. Patrons are encouraged to contribute a donation each time they attend. Used parts and bikes are also available for patrons to purchase. All collected funds from donations and parts or bikes sold are invested in the organization’s youth programs.