Empowering Young People Through Bikes
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Empowering Young People Through Bikes

How one local non-profit is helping create a new generation of cyclists in Toronto.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: November 21, 2014, 11:00 AM The author of this piece has in the past volunteered with the Charlie’s Freewheels organization. This fact was not disclosed until after the time of publication.

Today, the average Toronto cyclist is a 35-year-old male who lives in the old City of Toronto and cycles in the West End along established bike lanes. But a non-profit organization is working to diversify the city’s cycling population. Charlie’s Free Wheels teaches young people how to build their own bikes and ride them safely, and they’re pumping out young riders like no one else in the city.

Inspired by and named after Charles Prinsep, who died at 23 after being struck by a car on a cross-continental bike trip, Charlie’s Freewheels wants to encourage young people to explore every nook and cranny of Toronto by bike—and to know, love, and engage with their city. “A bike makes the city seem as if it’s smaller, so everything’s closer to me,” says participant Timothy Calupig.

The organization is based out of Charlie’s Bike Joint at Queen Street East and Sherbourne Street. Flanked by the Sherbourne cycling track, it’s well situated to serve kids from nearby Regent Park and Moss Park—low-income neighbourhoods that could use more cycling support. The not-for-profit bicycle shop out front supports Charlie’s by paying half the rent and regularly donating tools and parts at cost—and all its profits go to the program.

Charlie’s main focus is its free, 10-week Build-A-Bike program. The after-school workshop teaches kids and teens how to build bicycles and offers instruction on basic mechanics and safe riding skills. When students complete the program they get to keep their bike, and they also receive a new lock, a helmet, and access to Charlie’s tools during drop-in hours. After five years, 225 participants have completed the program.

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Charlie’s has also focused on getting more girls on bikes. Last year, it introduced a girls-only Build-A-Bike program that features strong female role models and mechanics who instruct and inspire their students. One participant, Jessica Julian, had just finished the program; though a bit shy, her admitting that “wrenches make make me feel bad-ass” might say it all.

Along with drop-in hours and group ride-alongs through the city, Charlie’s offers the Mobilized FreeWheelers program, which supports young cyclists speaking up about their transportation needs. The program also gathers locally specific knowledge of cycling and transportation based on the experiences of young people in marginalized communities. Its findings were exhibited at the Urban Space Gallery last February.

Charlie’s next few months will be eventful: The organization will build a pedal-powered parts washer, and prepare for a major fundraising campaign to get even more young people on bikes and promote cycling as a driver for positive social change.

Photos courtesy of Charlie’s Free Wheels.

CORRECTION: November 18, 2014, 6:00 PM This post originally stated that the Bike Store is a for-profit venture; that is not the case, and all its profits go to support Charlie’s Freewheels.