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Meet Mr. Bicycle, who’s helped fix thousands of bikes in Pennsylvania

spirit of humanity

Ross Willard’s all-volunteer nonprofit in Harrisburg, Pa., took shape after he noticed that children were riding bicycles with brakes that didn’t work.

Ross Willard’s nonprofit – its name featured on his shirt – grew out of simple acts of goodwill for fellow residents.
David Karas
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Caption
  • David Karas
    Correspondent

Some 15 years ago, Ross Willard was volunteering with a food program in Harrisburg, Pa., when he started to notice children riding bicycles with brakes that didn’t work.

The retired railroad executive saw the importance of ensuring those children didn’t have unsafe bikes, so he began repairing bicycles on street corners and at block parties and other community events, using tools he would keep in the back seat of his car.

Over time, as people learned about his work and he discovered the full extent of that need, his efforts took larger shape.

“It became a little toolbox, a bigger toolbox, [then] the van, the trailer, and the warehouse,” says Mr. Willard, founder and chief mechanical officer of Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg, which opened its first shop in 2007. The all-volunteer nonprofit emerged from Willard’s simple acts of goodwill for his fellow Harrisburg residents, and it’s now a thriving – yet surprisingly nimble – organization.

Today, Willard operates a bicycle collection point, repair facility, and teaching center for bicycle safety and maintenance, geared toward anyone who is interested. Common clients include children and their parents, as well as halfway house residents seeking to perform community service hours while also building their own bikes to use for inexpensive, efficient transportation.

Since its founding, Recycle Bicycle has distributed thousands of donated bikes to the Harrisburg community – averaging about 900 per year in the past decade, since the operation moved out of Willard’s basement and garage. “Mr. Bicycle,” as he’s known around the Pennsylvania capital, estimates that the organization repairs some 3,000 bikes a year, whether at the nonprofit or in the community.

The organization has a do-it-yourself philosophy: Although there is no charge for any repairs, or even bicycles, most visitors (with the exception of young children) are tasked with making their own repairs with the assistance of volunteer trainers. And those picking up bikes can do so in exchange for pitching in with repairs or other work in the shop.

“In essence, this is socialism: I don’t own the bikes; the city owns the bikes. The people own the bikes,” says Willard, adding with a chuckle, “But I am the dictator who determines the best place to send them.”

Sitting in the organization’s shop space, he discusses the volunteerism and sense of service that were imprinted on him as a child by his parents. This led to a strong belief about fixing problems that one finds in the community.

“If you see something that needs to be done, don’t call the government. Go fix it,” he says. “And so that’s what we do.”

Willard recounts a recent visit from a boy who was having a problem with the brakes on his bicycle. As the two worked on the repair, the boy’s sister asked about getting a basket to add to her bike. Willard helped her find the parts, and then she installed the basket herself.

More people in the bike saddle

From time to time, Willard also helps teach children as well as adults how to ride.

“To watch kids learn how to ride – terrific,” he says. “The best thing is to watch adults who have never [ridden] a bike before. We take people from being nonriders to being riders.”

Safety was the hook that brought Recycle Bicycle to life. That’s also what earned Willard the Mr. Bicycle moniker – as the guy who fixes bikes and reminds riders of safety.

Although safety is paramount, Willard also recognizes what a bike provides to a young boy or girl.

“The bicycle is freedom,” he says. “The kids need bikes to see the world.”

Bicycles can also mean freedom for the other target population of Recycle Bicycle – residents of halfway houses. A prison guard from Willard’s church, who had heard about his organization, told him about the needs of those recently released from jail or prison.

“We knew we could help them,” he says, noting the importance of transportation for getting to and from job interviews, work, group meetings, and other required programs.

“If you give them a car and the computer dies, they have got to pay somebody,” Willard says. “We give them something we know they can come back and repair as many times as needed.”

The benefits of bikes

Bicycles don’t require insurance, gas, or expensive maintenance, Willard notes. They provide exercise, and they can help adults have some fun while getting them where they need to go. “The bikes make them feel like teenagers again,” he says.

Recycle Bicycle offers halfway house residents the opportunity to perform prescribed community service. In addition, some include their unpaid volunteer work there as experience on their résumé – and use Willard as a job reference.

All the nonprofit’s activities are done with what Willard modestly describes as a “frugal” approach. The only cost, he says, is the $500 or so he pays each year for liability insurance, and sometimes a small charge for brake cables he buys at a shop.

Indeed, thriftiness is prized. “We throw away so many bikes in America,” Willard says, noting that many volunteers will save bicycles put out for trash collection and bring them in to repair and refurbish, or to cannibalize them for parts.

Recycle Bicycle is currently based in a donated warehouse space, but Willard hopes to secure a permanent home because of the limited room and the lack of climate control and plumbing. So far, he has raised $80,000 of the $150,000 needed.

For the retired Willard, the effect that Recycle Bicycle has had keeps him going.

“When we are in an area long enough, we don’t see as many broken bikes,” he says, alluding to the fact that the organization has a trailer for a mobile repair shop and that the nonprofit’s home base has shifted several times. “That is my passion because I see the need.”

One ex-convict’s story

On a recent afternoon at the warehouse, Robert Weldon was hard at work, searching for a derailleur for a bicycle he was building for himself. An hour later, his new bike was beginning to take shape.

“Right now, I’m getting out of prison,” Mr. Weldon says. “I need this. It saves me money. It gets me there.”

Weldon explains that he first heard of Willard and his organization when he was living in a halfway house and trying to find a way to get around while preserving the little money he had. It was difficult to walk the miles it would sometimes involve to make it to meetings and other required programming. Compounding that challenge was the limited time that residents had to travel to and from obligations, with penalties for late arrivals or returns. “This is where a bike really saved me,” he says.

Weldon used a loaner bike from his work program, but when that needed repairs, he discovered Recycle Bicycle. Now, he supports programs like this across the United States. “There should be more places like this,” he says.

Craig Gatchell, counselor assistant for Daystar Center for Spiritual Recovery – a halfway house in Harrisburg for those with substance abuse issues – also sees the value of Willard’s endeavor.

“The majority of our clients that come here don’t have any type of transportation. A lot of them don’t even have their license,” Mr. Gatchell says. When they go to Recycle Bicycle, “they come back with bikes.”

Of the 24 clients in the halfway house at the time, some 15 had bicycles from the nonprofit, according to Gatchell.

“It helps them get to 12-step fellowship meetings, [and] it also helps them look for employment, trying to expand their search area,” he says. Recycle Bicycle “help[s] us out tremendously. We are a nonprofit, so we don’t have the manpower to transport guys to and from work, or to meetings.”

For the residents, the bicycles have an immediate effect, Gatchell adds. “Giving them the ability to get bikes at basically no cost to them, besides their community service,” he says, “it gives them the opportunity to just get where they need to go.”

For more information, visit recyclebicycleharrisburg.org.

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups supporting sustainability, disadvantaged people, or both:

Miracles in Action provides Guatemalans living in extreme poverty with opportunities to help themselves through sustainable development projects. Take action: Donate money so students can receive backpacks filled with school supplies.

Let Kids Be Kids advocates on behalf of those who are poor, homeless, sick, displaced, or looking to improve their lives. Take action: Contribute to funds covering the cost of phone calls between death-row inmates and people on an approved list.

Osa Conservation applies scientific and other expertise to protecting the biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. Take action: Help at a sustainable farm.

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