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How Earn-a-Bike Solves Transportation Troubles in Worcester

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Earn-a-Bike teaches volunteers how to build and maintain their own bikes.

Worcester Earn-a-Bike has fixed thousands of bikes and empowered residents, and despite hardships and a devastating fire, they’re gearing up for an even more productive future.

Worcester Earn-a-Bike, a local non-profit that supplies volunteers with free donated bicycles saw hardship in 2009 when their building suffered a bad fire. Years later, they’re still putting the rubber to the road and are finally ready to move back to their original, more suitable spot at 4 King Street.Years later, they’re still putting the rubber to the road and are finally ready to move back to their original, more suitable spot at 4 King Street.

“The process to move back will be starting in a couple weeks,” said Earn-a-Bike’s head “spoke,” Gray Harrison. He’s been with the organization since it started in summer of 2000 and will be glad to be back in their original location. “It’s more central. The Cambridge Street location is very good. It works well for us, but it is a little bit away from the center of Worcester and those who need us the most. It’s harder for a lot of kids to get to.”

“We want to be in the Main South neighborhood where the need is greater,” Harrison said, adding that volunteers from WPI and Clark have been a great help at their current location.

The fire that took their old building in March of 2009 only halted the determined group momentarily. While the old location also housed other community efforts under the title Stone Soup, Earn-a-Bike didn’t quit. They continued their work of supplying bikes to members of the community out of the garage of their burned building until the winter weather became unbearable.

The group moved to 34 Cambridge Street in February of 2010.

“The guy who owns the building we’re in is very supportive. It was hard to find a place to house Earn-a-Bike,” Harrison said. “A lot of landlords didn’t want kids around their building. I give this guy a lot of credit. It works out really well.”

“The Stone Soup building has been through a lot to get rebuilt and is finally looking like it will be. The contractor is currently evaluating everything and making final plans.”

A Growing Need

While there has been plenty of commotion lately surrounding transportation fees, fines, and funding, Worcester’s Earn-a-Bike has found another way to solve these problems.

Harrison estimates that they have worked on thousands of bikes, getting the city more empowered and more eco-friendly every year.

“They’re all donated, sometimes by people who find us on the web who are wondering what to do with old bikes. Sometimes they call the bike shop and they direct them here,” Harrison said. “Earn-a-Bike originally was a part of the MassBike chapter, an organization in Boston.”

“The program was growing, and we wanted to be able to write our own grants and have local control. There are lots of people who are interested in helping out and think it’s a great idea,” he said. “We’ve always had a good number of volunteers, and of course there’s a huge need for it.”

Get a Free Bike

Earn-a-Bike works through volunteer service that will not only earn you a bike but teach you how to maintain it, and everyone ages 9 and up is welcome.

Volunteers spend 5 hours (under 17) or 10 hours (17 and older) helping out in the shop in order to build their own bike with no experience necessary. They also offer free on-the-spot help to anyone with bike maintenance questions.

“I signed up because I think it's a great opportunity to not only get a bike but to learn more about them. I actually went in with very little knowledge of bikes – at least their construction anyway, but after a few hours of working with a few people, I fixed gears, tires, brakes – overall I felt pretty accomplished,” said Amanda

Earn-a-Bike's warehouse has hundreds of bikes.

D’Andrea, who is in the process of earning her bike.

“The people there are all very friendly and patient. I had no experience working with bikes before, so I won’t pretend I knew what I was doing. Everyone was understanding though, and helped me through whatever I had trouble with,” she said.

D’Andrea sees the need for organizations like this for Worcester and the community. Additionally, she cited biking’s environmental and personal health benefits for her reasons she will be driving less.

“For those who have no other means of transportation, a bike is extremely efficient compared to walking. And even if someone has a car, the less they use it the better. Aside from the pollution, the streets of Worcester are so crowded - driving around here can certainly create a lot of unwanted stress,” she said. “Whether you can't afford a bike, or you don't want that extra expense, it's a free bike.”

A Road Block

While the benefits for the body and the environment can’t be overlooked, Harrison says they’re mainly in it to empower.

“There are a lot of reasons to have programs like this in Worcester, but the main reason is empowerment,” he said. “A bike is a very empowering, freeing thing to have and, there are so many bikes out there. But the cost of a bike is a real road block for a lot of people.”

 “If you think about a kid who gets a flat, they don’t have 10 bucks to get it fixed. The opportunity to come to a place that will teach them to fix it themselves – that’s a huge opportunity, and the word spreads fast,” he said.

“There’s a fair number of people out there for whatever reason don’t have a driver’s license, and they need a place to learn to work on their bikes. If you’re riding it every day, especially through the winter, it’s going to need work.”

“To earn a bike and learn how to fix it – for a kid it’s only 5 hours – it’s an amazing opportunity. That’s why we end up giving away so many bikes a year. They really appreciate the opportunity.”

Living Car-Free

“I would say that over the past 10-12 years we’ve been doing this, the number of people who come to Earn-a-Bike who don’t have cars has increased dramatically, and I don’t think that’s just us. It’s the whole idea that’s spreading all over the world, and certainly in the US. The idea of getting on a bike and living a car-free lifestyle is catching,” Harrison said. While people come to them for different reasons, he has noticed this over all trend.

Earn-a-Bike hopes to be more engaged with the neighborhood this summer and will be at the Farmer’s Market on Main South.

Earn-a-Bike is open Wednesday 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm, Saturday 4pm – 7 pm, Summer hours starting July 9th will be 11am – 4pm. Ladies night Mondays, 6pm – 8pm. Special members-only hours on the last Sunday of each month from 5 – 7 pm.


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