[R Community Bikes, 226 Hudson Avenue. Except where indicated, images provided by John Stewart]
In August 2019, in Brighton’s connection to R Community Bikes, we learned about R Community Bikes and the work done by John Stewart. Today, John’s friend Amy Stockwell updates us on the good work of RCB.
By Amy Stockwell
Watching the nice warm cars navigate the falling snow, it’s hard to believe that some people in Rochester only have bicycles as their year round means of transportation. John Stewart, the newly elected Director of RCommunity Bikes spoke forcefully about the people RCommunity Bikes serves and what it means to him. “Getting a bike changes people’s lives. I know that because every week the people we’ve helped come in and tell us. They tell us its changed their lives. That’s what keeps me going.”
Stewart was named Director of the well known Rochester non-profit in November 2021, and is working to continue to provide bikes and bike repairs to the clients who depend on their bikes for their lives and livelihoods. “The pandemic has changed how we can help these people,” Stewart said. “Their lives have been completely disrupted and there is no margin to fall back on. We’re re-examining how we can continue to safely get them bikes and bike repairs”.
RCommunity Bikes has a more than 20 year history of getting Rochester residents wheels since its founding in 2001. Bill Danza was volunteering at a soup kitchen and started out repairing one bike. The services grew: Just before the pandemic, RCB gave out 2500 bikes a year, and repaired another 4000. This hands on service was made possible by over 100 dedicated volunteers putting in countless hours as well as by the persistence of their clients People needing bikes were willing to stand in line for hours at Hudson Avenue or at a satellite location.
If you have no means of transportation other than a bike, how would you get a bike? Most residents of the City of Rochester are outside walking distance to the two commercial bike shops (one at Mt. Hope, one at University). And then you have to have money to purchase. RCB’s mission is to provide free bikes to those who could not otherwise afford them—people already dealing with the challenges of generational poverty, substance abuse, mental illness or recent incarceration. Or maybe more than one of these challenges. “Bikes are a lifeline for those we serve, “ Stewart notes. “Our clients use their bikes to get to work, to go to the grocery store, to get medical treatment. Those of us lucky enough to use our bikes for a weekend ride can’t imagine what it means to do everything on a bike.”
“Before the pandemic, we also went where the people are—soup kitchens, churches, pop up repair clinics.”, Stewart said. “Our building at 226 Hudson avenue was a place where people could drop in for repairs or to get a bike, and served as a center for socializing and community. We were regularly at Ashbury Methodist Church and St. Joe’s House of Hospitality and a number of other churches. We had bike drives at churches, community centers, and farmer’s markets as well as pop up repair clinics. We were repairing bikes 6 days a week at our Hudson Avenue headquarters.”
“Our strategy was to go where the people are, “ Stewart stated.
“But the pandemic changed everything,” Stewart continued. “We closed the building in the pandemic, and we’ve also seen big changes at our church partners.” Stewart noted that many church soup kitchens have moved to a “grab and go” model to keep people safe. Because people are not congregating at these soup kitchens, RCB has lost locations where they can easily serve many clients.
In these pandemic times, RCB volunteers are still working to rehab and repair bikes, as well as do all the back office tasks required to run a community non profit. RCB has been a 501 c(3) since 2008: continuing to meet the administrative requirements of this status also requires considerable volunteer effort. Stewart notes that” this big structural milestone demonstrated to the community that RCB is a serious organization committed to its mission and to being responsible to its donors and volunteers.”
Reopening has been gradual and careful, but bikes can be dropped off for repairs without an appointment which will be more convenient for clients. Bike giveaways remain by appointment, but Stewart expects that full reopening and give always on drop in basis will resume by May 1. “And maybe earlier if the weather cooperates!,” Stewart notes.
R Community Bikes passed another major milestone when the RCB Board decided to remain at the Hudson Avenue location, and put resources into its continuing maintenance and upkeep. “We are an anchor for the community on Hudson Avenue,” Stewart notes. “Being in one place provides stability and permanence, our clients and volunteers know we are committed, and it’s the best use of our existing resources.”
Stewart’s own history with RCB is one of dedication and serving in a number of roles. “When I retired from my IT job at PayChex, I was interested in bikes and bike repair. I investigated becoming a trained technician, even looking at formal bike training programs out of town. At the same time, I started volunteering at RCB as one of the bike repair people—a sort of hands on learning.” I kept volunteering, and my work just grew.” With a smile, Stewart summarized the story: “Six years ago I wanted to work in a bike shop and now I’m directing one!”
What lies ahead for RCBikes and Stewart? “We are working on a tactical and strategic plans for 2022 and beyond. We have hardworking Finance and Building Committees taking on these tasks” Stewart said. “We’ll continue to work with Ashbury and St. Joe’s as they both have space where bikes can be stored that creates a more permanent additional location. It’s a huge benefit not to have to use our valuable volunteer labor to haul bikes around. Of course, we will also be working to shore up the infrastructure at our Hudson Avenue location, since we have made the commitment to be there.”
“We are also going to try new things, like pop up repair clinics, “ Stewart continued. “We are also going to expand going through groups to give away bikes. We’ve had some experience working through Keeping Our Promise and other refugee resettlement agencies as well as church and civic groups. We’ll use that experience to do more in the future.”
And when asked what RCB needs now, Stewart didn’t hesitate. “We need good quality used bikes that we can put back on the road without requiring too many hours to repair. We need money to help maintain our tools and our building, but the heart of the operation is our dedicated volunteers. If your group might be able to help, we’d like to hear from you. We also need hands on help: People who are good mechanics, compassionate people who can deal with our clients, skillful people who can help with the back office tasks of running a non profit. In other words, nothing much!”
Stewart recounted a recent story when asked what keeps him working so hard for RCB: “A young guy came in to have his bike repaired. This was early December and there was already snow. I asked him where he worked and he said at an airport hotel. If we hadn’t repaired his bike, it would have taken him a couple of hours and several bus changes just to get to his job. If we can make the hard roads these people are traveling even a little easier, its worth it.”
To Donate Bikes: Drop off at 226 Hudson Avenue, Monday through Saturday 9am to 1pm
To Volunteer: [email protected]
To Contribute Money: Send check to P.O. Box 26471 Rochester 14626
To Learn More: Rcommunitybikes.org