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YMEN launches Bike Box to help serve North Lawndale’s transportation needs

Robert Welch installs a pedal at the North Lawndale Bike Box. Photo: Amber Drea

Robert Welch hopes to accomplish two goals with one program: make bicycles easily accessible for his community and get people’s bodies moving. 

Earlier this summer, Welch helped launch the North Lawndale Bike Box in partnership with the youth development organization Young Men’s Educational Network. The bike shop, which is set up in a shipping container at the southwest corner of 13th Street and Pulaski Road, provides bike repair alongside sales and rentals of refurbished used bikes, at little or no cost to residents. Any fees are just enough to cover the cost of the materials. Or community members can trade their time by helping out around the shop. 

“Mainly it's about making sure that people are staying mobile, because obesity is one of the biggest issues in the North Lawndale community,” Welch explains. “It's about lowering those numbers as well as getting people mobile by any way possible to do exercise without really thinking about it, and bicycles are the easiest way that we've known since we were kids. Our main mission is to get North Lawndale back active.”

So far, the Bike Box has sold 45 bikes, traded 20 for work, and provided loaner cycles for three neighborhood bike rides. “The bike rental program has 20 adult bikes and five kids’ bikes,” Welch says. “So if a youth organization or outreach program needs to utilize it, they just fill out the application to take the bikes out and just bring them back. And that’s free.”

Cycles at the North Lawndale Bike Box. Photo: Amber Drea
Cycles at the North Lawndale Bike Box. Photo: Amber Drea
Cycles at the North Lawndale Bike Box. Photo: Amber Drea

Prices for used bikes are $25 for a kid’s cycle and $50 for an adult bike, but Bike Box is willing to work with community members who can’t afford to pay that much. “We're 100-percent dedicated to getting people mobile,” Welch says. “However, there are a lot of people who don't have $50 and that's when it comes to creativity. I’d much rather see somebody who really wants to ride a bike than somebody who's gonna just come back and steal it. And that's the biggest connection that we have with the community. Sometimes people don't have the money, but they aren’t afraid to give time.”

Most of the bikes are donated through churches that are connected to YMEN or via their partnership with the Little Village-based nonprofit organization Working Bikes, which also helps with ordering supplies. The relationship is mutually beneficial. “We can pretty much donate all of our old bike parts to Working Bikes,” Welch says. “For example, they are in need of mountain bike frames to send to other countries [Working Bikes ships cycles to partner organizations in developing nations] because certain countries don't want beach cruisers. So it's been a bike trade between Working Bikes and us for figuring out who needs what when, and that alone is kept us flush with bikes.”

More bikes in the shipping container. Photo: Amber Drea
More bikes in the shipping container. Photo: Amber Drea
More bikes in the shipping container. Photo: Amber Drea

Mountain bikes tend to be in high demand in North Lawndale as well. “You want something for hard riding that's going to make it through all seasons and take you where you need to go,” Welch explains. “You'll see some people with old school Schwinns or Huffies, but those are a little bit harder to fix and they also mess up easier due to the fact that the parts are just so old. So people aren’t necessarily looking for any particular style. They just want it cheap.”

Welch, 30, grew up in North Lawndale and benefited greatly from YMEN’s programs, which made it possible for him to visit 47 states, six countries and four continents by age 18. “I only ever loved travel to the point that it was my life's dream,” Welch says. “I wanted to go places. You can see something or you can go there and experience it.” Many of the excursions revolved around touring colleges and learning about Black history, though one particularly memorable trip involved helping to build a secondary vocational school in Uganda. “We went there to experience the life and the culture because it's one thing being Black in America and not having certain connections to Africa except for what you see on TV. Then you go there and that’s a complete 180 of what it actually is,” Welch says.

In fact, a paper mâché mask of Welch’s face and a mold of his hand still hang on the wall inside the community center from the days when he was a youth involved with YMEN programs. “That’s how long this organization has been here for me,” he says. “It's inspirational to my entire family. My older brother also works here now and he was technically the reason why I ever was in the program and my other brother too. We honestly made it this far because they saw something in him and they reached out. That’s what started YMEN – because some kids were smart, but had nothing to do outside of school.”

A paper mâché mask of Welch’s face and a mold of his hand still hang on the wall inside the community center from the days when he was a youth involved with YMEN programs. Photo: Amber Drea

Now Welch has returned to give back to his community. In addition to his position as Bike Box coordinator at YMEN, he is a behavior support coach at a local elementary school. “My role is somewhat like a dean,” Welch explains. “I work with kids and behavior structure. So I'm dealing with kids in the transition from being out for the entire year and their behaviors with them being back in.” 

After the last 20 months, a program like Bike Box might be just the thing the whole community needs. And it’s not just for kids: The program’s largest demographic is people in their 50s and 60s. “They're the ones who are out here on bikes,” Welch says. “So daily, we get a lot of those people saying, ‘I didn't know you were here. Can you do a patch?’ And it's just a referral business from there. I get a lot of older generation, which I think is great.”

Welch actually pitched the idea for the bike shop a few years ago when he first got certified through YMEN to be a bike technician, but the project fell through due to the economy. Then the initiative got revived and Welch was back on board. “It was a dream that I wanted to see come to fruition,” he says. “My mentality was to start something to serve a need in North Lawndale that could work without having too much income and could practically run itself. Our goal isn't necessarily to make a profit as much as help the local economy get back moving.”

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