I don’t remember the first time I met Carmelita Sams, the well-loved bike mechanic and instructor who recently passed away, but I do remember one of the last times I saw her. Carmelita was a volunteer at West Town Bikes, a bike education center in Humboldt Park, as well as the only female staffer at its attached shop, Ciclo Urbano. In July I organized Cargo Bike Roll Call at West Town. It was a chilly afternoon and I told her I was cold. She offered to run home and get one of her son’s sweatshirts for me, and came back with a double XL bright orange hoodie that fit me perfectly.
Carmelita died of cancer last Sunday, December 29, 56 years young.
Alex Wilson, executive director of West Town Bikes, says Carmelita was already passionate about biking before she got involved with West Town in 2009. “She just walked in,” he recalled. “I don’t know if she found us online, or what. She started participating in Open Shop and Women and Trans Night.” She became staff coordinator and an instructor for Women and Trans’ Night, which Wilson describes as “a safe and welcoming place for women, and those who identify as women, to work on bikes and share knowledge on bikes.”
Wilson noted that Carmelita came in second at a mechanics contest at the 2011 Bike Fall festival at The Hideout. “It wasn’t necessarily who was the fastest, but quality of work was measured,” he explained. Although she already knew how to repair her own bikes before joining West Town and Ciclo urbano, her work there honed her skills.
Carmelita also volunteered with West Town’s Girls Bike Club, a group for high school students founded in 2010 by Andriana “Angie” Vera and Shacora Hawkins. Vera, 18, currently studying accounting at Harold Washington College, was at West Town Bikes yesterday when I called and said the club won’t be the same without Carmelita. “We’re just so used to her being there,” she said. “Carmelita was the picture person. She always had a camera in her hand, and she always posted on our Facebook. She was always catching all of our movements.” I remember that about her, too. She would often email photos of me or my friends after West Town Bikes events.
Vera said Carmelita also encouraged the girls to do more than just hang out and go on bike rides, which Vera called “the fun part.” “She pushed us to get hands-on, and learn more about [bike] tools, the nitty gritty.” That sounds just like Carmelita, who was one of the relatively few women, and very few women of color, working as bike mechanics and instructors in this city. In a video produced for West Town Bikes in 2012, she said:
I hope that young women… can look up to me or at least feel that… just seeing a woman working in a bike shop, that they have a chance to… become a mechanic, get a job, or heck, even open up their own shop. I just want women to feel empowered when it comes to working on their bikes or just getting out and riding more often. It’s great exercise, it’s fun, camaraderie. And it keeps you young. I really enjoy what I do, and I enjoy sharing the experience with the West Town Bikes community.
Wilson said everyone at West Town will remember Carmelita for her contagious enthusiasm and passion for cycling, adding that a lasting memorial will be created to honor her. The funeral service will take place on Tuesday, January 7, at 7 p.m. at Leaks and Sons Funeral Home, 18400 S Pulaski in Country Club Hills. Contributions to help defray expenses can be made on West Town’s Network for Good page (indicate that the contribution is for Carmelita Sams) or in person at the shop via a check made out to West Town with her name in the memo line. There will be carpooling from the shop on Tuesday.