By Lillian Mongeau
Valeria Bautista runs a bike shop at her school in Lawndale, a small city just south of Los Angeles. Students fix donated bikes and sell them or rent them to fellow students. She’s worked there since she made an important discovery in her junior year at Environmental Charter High School: She loves fixing bikes.
“If it’s totally rusted out and you can give it a new life and give it a new story for somebody else to ride it, I feel it’s an amazing feeling,” she says.
The shop got started a few years ago when Matthew Dang, a student at the school, made it his senior year project to encourage alternative transportation. It worked, says the school’s executive director, Alison Diaz.
“There used to be no bikes on campus. And now there’s over 75 a day. That’s a quarter of our population riding bikes to school in an urban area,” Diaz says.
Seniors started riding and fixing bikes, Diaz says, and the younger students followed suit. Now, it’s cool. But Dang and Bautista didn’t figure out how to fix bikes all by themselves.
“Brian is a really awesome teacher,” Bautista says. “I learned everything that I know from Brian. ”
That’s Brian Lindquist the owner of Beach Cities Cycles in Hermosa Beach. He’s donated some money and tools, but he says mostly he’s put time into the in-school bike shop. Lindquist doesn’t run a non-profit and he’d never started a bike shop with a bunch of teenagers from a rough neighborhood before. But he says the project has changed the way he sees his community.
” I definitely get a different perspective on kids as not just being a pain to deal with,” he says. “I can see the generation coming up really does have a grasp on things and can accomplish great things. ”
There’s also a practical aspect to what he’s doing: teaching marketable skills.
“Hey, you’re creating yourself a workforce later on,” he says.” The big stumbling block nowadays of getting into a bike shop is do you have experience? And almost nobody does. It’s a catch-22 thing. If you don’t have experience, you can’t get hired. If you can’t get hired you don’t have experience.”
Bautista has already landed a volunteer gig at a local bicycle cooperative. Her work there inspired her senior project, a these on how such a cooperative in a low-income area attracts commerce and vitality. Bautista says volunteering at such cooperatives gives kids more than just bike-fix-it know-how.
“They’re being given an opportunity by a place like this to gain job skills, to gain organization skills for committees and things like that,” she says.
Principal Jenni Taylor says the high school’s bike shop provides a lot of the same benefits.
” The kids that have taken on ownership of the bike shop and have really just turned into amazing stewards that are excited to help the community,” Taylor says.
The kids’ ability to run a shop hasn’t gone unnoticed by colleges either. Dang, the student who started the bike shop, now attends Brown University.
“They get to tell those stories after they do something awesome to colleges, and the colleges say wow,” Diaz says. “Now, Matt’s been asked by Brown to start that on their campus.”
Bautista says the business skills and resume building are important to her, but they’re really only one part of her passion for bikes.
“The feeling when I’m going downhill on my bike, it’s just a really freeing feeling,” she says. “You feel very empowered. You feel like an individual.”