Nonprofit bike shop thrives thanks to boost from the city

Youth employed at nonprofit bike shop
Bikes N’ Roses, 4747 N. Sawyer, operates as a fully functioning bike shop with youth as its employees. (Haley Velasco/MEDILL)

By Haley Velasco

Feb. 14 Update: We have added a documentary to this story which features student Freddy Mercado and David Pohlad in the bike shop.

If you walk down Sawyer Avenue in Albany Park, you’ll pass a shop with a glass storefront displaying multi-colored bikes hanging from the walls and the ceiling. Inside that shop, young people work and volunteer in the non-profit shop, fixing and building bikes for community members.

But it hasn’t always been easy to keep two Bikes N’ Roses locations in Albany Park and Belmont Cragin open, and to employ the students, according to David Pohlad, the program director.

In February 2015, Governor Bruce Rauner froze millions in social service grant dollars disbursed by outgoing Governor Pat Quinn on Jan. 1. In that decision, Bikes ‘n’ Roses lost $276,000 of funding that the program was relying on to pay 30 students, as well as rent and utilities to keep the program running after having to move its Belmont Cragin location to a different rented space.

“We weren’t paying any youth and it was like that for about a year,” Pohlad said. “A lot of things were going unfunded in the program and we managed to stay alive. We held on to our two locations the whole time and had just as many youth as we did when they were getting paid. They still came.”

Following over a year without state funding, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped in to help Bikes N’ Roses get local funding in April 2016. Thanks to a $60,000 investment to restore 20 yearlong youth employment opportunities and an additional $94,000 through the One Summer Chicago program, the program was able to reopen its Belmont Cragin location in 2016 and employ 50 young people through the summer.

“The summer months are when our children need us the most, which is why we must step in when the state will not,” said Emanuel in a statement.

The Mayor’s One Summer Chicago program works to provide more than 25,000 employment opportunities for young people, ages 14-24, across the city during the summer months.

“Providing our young people with opportunities that will allow them to learn professional and life skills will benefit them throughout their lives,” said Lisa Morrison Butler, Department of Family Supports and Services Commissioner, in a statement. “This is especially true for our youth employed by Bikes N’ Roses, an established program that has provided hundreds of Chicago’s youth not only a job and a paycheck, but the chance to hone new skills and a unique experience.”

Now, the Albany Park students learn from Pohlad and his bike mechanic knowledge, while teaching and working together.

Bikes in local bike shop
Dozens of bikes are displayed in the Albany Park Bikes N’ Roses location as youth employees and volunteers deconstruct and reconstruct different models. (Haley Velasco/MEDILL)

“We’re big on having other youth take the initiative. It’s a great opportunity for them to show off what they learned and practice their communication,” Pohlad said.

The coolest part of being at Bikes N’ Roses, according to Andrew, 12 years old, is that, “They teach us to change things and we can learn new things.”

In 2016, 130-150 students worked through Bikes N’ Roses during the year and even more volunteered during the year, according to Pohlad.

Currently, the program pays 20 students at the Belmont Cragin location and 10 at the Albany Park location.

Freddy, 16 years old, said that his dad taught him how to ride a two-wheeler when he was five years old. He got back into biking as he started high school and came to Bikes N’ Roses a little over a year ago with a friend and thanks to “hands on” learning, he now has become an expert.

“It doesn’t feel like a lot of bike shops tends to feel. It just feels very homey,” Mercado said.

Photo at top: Bikes N’ Roses, 4747 N. Sawyer, operates as a fully functioning bike shop with youth as its employees. (Haley Velasco/MEDILL)