Two wheels good, four wheels bad

Build a Bike

When a woman grows up poor, chances are she may never have had a bicycle. Never have learned to ride.

And chances are that not many women from any social class will ever have held a wrench in their hands.

So, when things have gone wrong, and a woman has ended up in a shelter, learning how to build, repair, and ride a bicycle can be liberating. At least, that was the reasoning of Community Bicycle Network (CBN). And when the idea was presented by CBN to Nellie’s, Stop 86, and the women’s centre at the University of Toronto, they all decided to give it a try.

When CBN approached Nellie’s, executive director Cindy Cowan said, « I wasn’t sure that women would be attracted because they’re dealing with so many things — violence, poverty, abandoning.

« But from the moment I met the women (from CBN) who’d be running the program, I knew they’d be super. They’re a dynamite group. They’re really passionate about fixing, maintaining, and building bikes.’’

The passion was catching. Nellie’s is now thinking about installing bicycle racks outside the centre. Nellie’s has 33 beds, 23 for homeless women and children, and 10 for women leaving violence.

The program is increasing the sense of self-esteem and self-worth of women in the shelter, Cowan said. And it is helping them develop networks of mutual support.

Jill Hornick is coordinator of the program for CBN. « The feedback we’re getting is that it gives women a sense of freedom, a sense of ownership of yourself,’’ she says.

Cowan agreed. « Absolutely,’’ she said. « It’s freedom not only to know you can do things, but freedom to know you can travel places.’’

The program for women’s shelters is only one of the initiatives housed under the CBN umbrella. At the core of all programs are workshops for building and repairing bicycles.

There are three workshops. The main one is in a grand old building that’s been divided into shops and offices at 761 Queen St. W, just past Bathurst St. A second, the Westend Bike Club, is in the Dufferin Mall at  Dufferin St. just south of Bloor St. And the third, the Cabbagetown Bike Club, is at  40 Oak St. northeast of Dundas and Parliament Sts.

You can bring your bicycle there for repairs and maintenance and, for $5 an hour, rent the necessary tools. Or you can build your own bicycle from old parts. If you need help, advice is available for $1 for every five minutes. Or you can buy a bicycle for $25 to $100 that has been rebuilt by CBN members from old parts.

About 500 bikes were sold last year, mostly in a price range close to $25, according to Martin Collier, CBN’s network coordinator. Parts are donated, or as Hornick puts it, rescued from the waste stream.

Songcycles is another initiative. It’s a bicycle choir that sings as it pedals. The songs celebrate the environment and community benefits of cycling.

Yet another is Trailblazers, at 217 Laird Dr. in Leaside. It has tandem bikes, and members take blind people cycling.

There is a workshop on wheels — a bicycle trailer filled with tools and spare parts — that’s taken to community events, to offer repairs and tune-ups. And there is a program to assist immigrants in learning English by engaging them in bicycle activities and repairs.

A more formal undertaking is to provide work for « youth at risk,’’ and for this CBN receives a grant of about $130,000 a year from Human Resources Development Canada. CBN’s total budget is about $150,000 a year.

In large part, however, programs are supported by volunteers. There are about 150, of whom 30 are core volunteers. The number to call if you want to volunteer, or if you have bicycle parts to donate, is (416) 504-2918.

Behind the greasy hands at CBN, behind the baseball caps on backwards, the battered furniture, and the youthful nonchalance, I saw practicality, and the passion toward helping the environment and other people that Cowan identified. In these troubling times, that’s really heartening.

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