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Bike program for kids rolling in Kalamazoo

Ethan Alexander (far left) of the Open Roads Bike program speaks to a group of kids in Kalamazoo
Eric Sweet
Ethan Alexander (far left) of the Open Roads Bike program speaks to a group of kids in Kalamazoo

This week, we’re changing it up a bit for our “What’s Working” series. Morning Edition Host Christina Shockley is welcoming Michigan Radio Reporter Kyle Norris into the studio to talk about a program in a Kalamazoo neighborhood that revolves around bikes.

Resident Ethan Alexander has organized a program called the Open Roads Bike Program, which teaches kids about bike maintenance. The children learn to perform a number of tasks involved in repairing and taking care of bikes. When they’ve completed all of the tasks, they are rewarded with a bike of their own.

But the bikes are not the only focus of the program. While learning how to take care of bikes provides the children with a sense of accomplishment and pride, Alexander makes sure the kids learn how to respect and get to know one another.

Kyle Norris recently attended a regularly held workshop event in the neighborhood called “Fixapalooza,” where she got to witness what the program has to offer first-hand. She says the atmosphere was similar to that of a block party, plus bikes – many, many bikes.

“It was a total party. There was Michael Jackson on a boom box, blasting. There was pizza. There was a dog running around. And there were a lot of kids, and adults, too, and bikes – bikes flipped over, adults working on bikes, kids working on bikes.”

The program got started when Edison neighborhood resident Ethan Alexander combined two things he had in excess: bikes and an understanding of how to work with children. Norris says it all got started about three years ago.

“He actually created it because he had a lot of bikes kicking around. I think he’s sort of a bike-head, so he had a lot of bikes. But he’s also a social worker, and he knows how to work with kids and get kids to work on their social skills and work on becoming better kids. So he kind of put the two loves together.”

The children who participate in the program don’t have to come very far to join in the fun, says Norris.

“Many of them come from this Edison neighborhood. They come, literally, down the street. Maybe single-family homes, maybe economically challenged.”

Alexander says the program gives the children a sense of confidence that they may not have in other areas of their lives.        

“A lot of these kids may not be successful in school. They may not be successful in other avenues. But you put a wrench in their hand, or you put a screwdriver in their hand, and that’s when they kind of light up, that’s when they get excited, and say, ‘Oh, I can do this. This is something I can do.’ And they’re valued and they start to believe in themselves and their abilities.”

After hanging out at Fixapalooza, Norris describes Mr. Alexander as a “zippy” guy. She says his leadership creates the atmosphere of respect.

“Sort of the first thing they do is they meet in a huge circle where everyone introduces themselves. And he goes over some rules, some sort of basic rules they have, like, respect yourself, respect other people, learn how to introduce yourself to other kids, other adults. So he’s working with the kids and really laying out this foundation of, ‘Here are these rules we’re going to follow.’”

As the kids are standing in a circle around Alexander, waiting to get to work on the bikes, Alexander makes sure no one slips by without interacting with the group. He calls loudly to everyone,

“Everybody give me a thumbs up if you’re showing respect right now. Great. That’s the first one: respect. I want everybody to turn to the person next to them, and shake their hand, with some respect.”

In addition to simply showing respect, Norris says the children learn other valuable skills.

“A big one was how to introduce yourself. And Ethan talked about, you know, they can take that skill and then go to, say, a job, and learn how to introduce themselves to someone when they’re applying for a job. So they’re taking these skills and applying them in concrete ways. He also says he sees improvements right away in the classroom, in the kids’ lives with their friends, in their homes, and even when they’re coming back, he says he’s seeing improvements with their social skills.”

Above all the lessons learned and skills acquired, Norris says the most impactful part of the workshop for her was how much fun the entire event was.

“I have to say it was a total good time. I left that place thinking I would totally volunteer there. You know, if this were in my town I would totally do this. And it’s not just, you know, kids having a good time and a party, but it was the kids, and adults, really working together. And Ethan even told the adults, you know, if you see a kid do something good, tell them they did a good job. Say, like, `Nice job,’ you know, `Way to work on that brake. Way to fix that bike. Way to work on that chain.’ And I saw that happen, and it was really sweet.”

Eliot Johnson - Michigan Radio Newsroom

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