Kerri Martin mixes bike repair with on-the-job training

Youths who work at Second Life Bikes for 15 hours can earn a refurbished bicycle of their own.

Courtesy of Second Life Bikes
Youths who work at Second Life Bikes in Asbury Park, N.J., learn to repair and refurbish bicycles. After 15 hours on the job, they can take home a reconditioned bike of their own.

Kerri Martin spent a while working in retail bicycle shops, much of her time allocated to taking parts out of boxes and assembling what would become brand-new, expensive rides.

But in the course of that work, she developed a special affection toward used bikes, which had histories and showed signs of wear, but could become perfectly usable with the right repairs.

“There are good old bikes out there that can still be on the road, but just need some labor and parts,” Ms. Martin says.

Moved by this interest, Martin decided to merge a traditional bike shop with a social service agency, of sorts, by launching Second Life Bikes.

Now based on Main Street in Asbury Park, N.J., Second Life Bikes first began in a church parking lot in 2006, with the simple goal of providing folks in the surrounding community with the chance to purchase a used, refurbished bike at a reasonable cost – also offering repair services and part sales.

But beyond the basic business premise of the shop, Second Life Bikes features a unique program: Youths who work at the shop for 15 hours, helping to repair bicycles and performing other tasks, walk away with a bicycle of their own, which they can then begin to repair and restore using their newfound skills.

Many young men and women are not exposed to the work that goes into bicycle maintenance, Martin says. Her hope is to help provide the youths who come through her shop with practical skills as well as experience in committing time to a small community organization, all while picking up useful communication and job-interviewing skills.

“We are like a well-oiled machine,” she says, explaining that the young volunteers plug into the projects where they can, even if they have little or no experience. “A lot of them are learning just to use a wrench.”

Since its launch in 2006, Second Life Bikes has found a permanent home in its downtown storefront, which the fledgling organization, with only four employees including Martin, is fundraising to purchase. While the shop gets by financially on its sales of used bikes and repair work, the youth-training component remains a central focus.

“I just saw that it could grow into something bigger, something that is a full-time place,” says Martin, who, even in the earliest stages of the effort, saw the organization becoming a sort of “big community bike garage.”

Five years ago, Martin quit her job and made Second Life Bikes her primary focus – and her dedication has paid off.

She estimates that the organization passes along some 200 bicycles a year – through youths earning a bike by volunteering there, through donation drives that provide bikes to younger children at the holiday season, or in the wake of events like Superstorm Sandy.

But perhaps the greatest accomplishment has been the positive results within the youths who have become part of Second Life Bikes.

“We are giving them a chance to use tools and earn something, learn job and life skills, and learn how to shake hands and look people in the eye,” Martin says in a recent interview. She describes the experience as “interacting in the real world.”

And even though the young volunteers do not receive a salary, she says they enjoy the sense of responsibility that comes with having a job there.

“Some of them actually come back and still volunteer here,” she says. “I have seen them grow here, too. They really feel comfortable here, like it is their place.”

Moving forward, Martin envisions additional job-skills training in more advanced skills such as welding or carpentry. She also hopes to continue her mission to “get everybody on bikes.”

The movement is gaining traction and garnering attention, she says, with people young and old coming from Asbury Park and the surrounding area to volunteer, buy a bike, or have their bike repaired.

“We have a commodity that people want,” Martin says, reflecting on what lies next for Second Life Bikes. “We can choose our own future, our own destiny.”

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