Youth program hopes online campaign keeps wheels turning at bike shop

SHARE Youth program hopes online campaign keeps wheels turning at bike shop

Angel Cordero was nervous, angry and sad when he was told the youth program he worked at had to shut down by midnight.

The 16-year-old high school sophomore was one of dozens of teens fired when Bikes N’ Roses — which teaches teens to repair bikes and sell them — became another casualty of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s freeze in state funding.

But Oscar Rivera, who oversees the Bikes N’ Roses program for its parent organization, Communities United, isn’t giving up.

He hopes to keep the shops open by selling bikes and raising money — most recently, through an online GoFundMe campaign with a goal of $70,000. The campaign started March 1 and by Sunday had raised about $3,900. The aim is to make the shop self-sustaining in three to five years, Rivera said.

Bikes N’ Roses was not alone in the cuts. The loss of funds – part of a $6.7 billion proposed budget cut – has also affected childcare facilities and other social programs all over Illinois.

Gov. Rauner said the cuts were the necessary “result of years of bad decisions, sleight-of-hand budgeting and giveaways we couldn’t afford” in the state.

But Cordero said, “I remember the day that they told us this was happening, that they took away everything. I was just shocked because we started off and it was going well and then, right away, it was cut off, taken from us.”

Dozens of donated bikes fill the Albany Park shop. Teens can repair them and sell them to help keep the shop going. After training on donated bikes, the teens would move on to fixing bikes for clients. | Esther Castillejo/For the Sun-Times

“On Jan. 29 we got an email at about 4 p.m. telling us that we had to shut down all operations by that night,” said Rivera, who oversees Bikes N’ Roses’ shops in the Albany Park and Belmont-Cragin neighborhoods.

The shop had been expecting a $276,000 grant to help at-risk teenagers from families living well below the poverty line learn skills and get jobs.

Many of the teens already had quit other jobs or extracurricular activities at school to work at the shops, where they earned $9 an hour. At least, that was the plan before the state froze the funding.

“We didn’t know that was even possible,” said David Pohlad, youth coordinator at Bikes N’ Roses in Belmont-Cragin. Some of the teens are showing up anyway — but as volunteers.

Others don’t have that choice; they need a paying job to help support their families.

David Pohlad, youth coordinator at Bikes N’ Roses in Belmont-Cragin. | Esther Castillejo/For the Sun-Times

“Many of their parents relied on that money, so that was really bad,” Pohlad said. “It sounds very disappointing but I think a lot of them are kind of used to being let down in certain instances, so some of them kind of took it in and showed up the next day and worked for free and we’ve been growing slowly since.”

The grant didn’t help just the bike shop, Rivera said.

“We had partnered with about 15 different worksites,” Rivera said. “We were supposed to serve 85 youths with the grant — 30 of them were going to be in the shop; 55 would have been placed in the 15 different worksites.”

One of those worksites was Lawrence Hall, a foster home in the Loop, which was just days away from starting its own culinary program with the grant money when the grant was put on hold.

Oscar Rivera oversees Bikes N’ Roses shops in Albany Park and Belmont-Cragin. | Esther Castillejo/For the Sun-Times

The grant was a lifeline for the youth-focused bike shop, which had to temporarily close last October after losing its previous Albany Park storefront to a higher bidder.

Besides paying the teens, the grant would have helped pay rent, utilities and most of Rivera’s and Pohlad’s salaries.

Communities United has covered their expenses, and hopes the state will still reimburse them.

This is not the first time the program has lost a grant since its start in 2011, Rivera said. A $20,000 grant through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development was taken away in 2013. That’s because Communities United, previously known as the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, was part of an immigrant rights coalition that endorsed legalizing same-sex marriage.

Rivera hopes the state will either release the grant money or offer some alternatives.

“If they don’t unfreeze the money, then they need to come up with some kind of Plan B,” he said. “I understand that the state is in a financial crisis. I know it’s [the governor’s] job to fix it, but you can’t just eliminate youth development from the services that are provided with our tax dollars.”

Teens at the shop are trained in donated bikes, but then move on to work repairing client bikes. | Esther Castillejo/For the Sun-Times

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