It was dusk earlier this month when 25-year-old Ben Alexander and a dozen middle schoolers, all of them boys, arrived on their bicycles at City Hall in Kansas City, Kan.
Oscar, Abdu, Muhammed, Alan and the rest switched off the flashing lights, parked their rides in the lobby (with permission) and met with the city’s elected officials to present their plan for making the streets safer in the east side neighborhood.
Bike lanes on 10th Street for starters.
This being government, members of the bike clubs at Central Middle School and the Boys and Girls Club didn’t get immediate results. But they and their mentor certainly left a positive impression.
“I thought it was cool that (Alexander) got the kids to not only think about what was wrong, but to get them to come up with suggestions on how to fix it,” said Brian McKiernan, the Unified Government commissioner who chaired that evening’s meeting.
McKiernan isn’t the only one impressed with Alexander and the nonprofit group the lanky, bearded cyclist from Shawnee founded a couple of years ago in KCK.
Teachers, health advocates and young cyclists alike praise the work Alexander is doing through FreeWheels for Kids.
What began as a one-man bicycle giveaway program has grown into a full-fledged, tax-exempt organization with a board of directors, grant funding and a philosophy that is as much about teaching self-reliance as it is about fun and physical fitness.
The result, said Alexander: “There are a lot more kids in that east KCK area riding bikes now and riding them safely.”
More than 1,000 have graduated since 2011 from the FreeWheels bike safety classes that Alexander has taken to KCK middle schools, apartment complexes and social service agencies like Bethel Neighborhood Center.
Hundreds have been given bikes through the group’s Earn-a-Bike program, where kids learn how to take apart bicycles and put them back together.
Kids such as 12-year-old Reyna Espino, who says she wanted to be able to fix her own bike and now rides a purple and pink one she earned through FreeWheels.
“Ben, he’s cool,” Reyna said.
Alexander also organizes group bike rides and helps boys and girls form bike clubs that work on community service projects, such as the bike safety plan presented at the meeting earlier this month.
“Ben’s organization is awesome because it’s like a concerted effort to get kids on bicycles in Wyandotte,” said Wesley McKain, program specialist with Healthy Communities Wyandotte, a division of the county’s Public Health Department.
And that, McKain says, is a very good thing in a community like KCK, which has one of the highest obesity rates among adults in the state and, not coincidentally, also ranks low in measurements of physical activity.
Get more kids on bikes, Alexander figures, and maybe they’ll end up adopting healthier lifestyles than their parents.
“He’s training kids to see biking as a lifelong activity,” McKain said.
Alexander grew up in Johnson County, went to the University of Kansas and has a long history of serving the disadvantaged.
As a college student studying abroad in Paraguay, he volunteered in an orphanage. Back home in Kansas City after graduation with a degree in environmental science in 2010, he was working at the Mattie Rhodes community center in the old northeast area when he set off on his current path.
One of the kids there, a seventh-grader, was intrigued at how Alexander got to and from work on his bike, plus knew how to fix it.
Few kids in the neighborhood had bikes, the boy said.
“He always called me Bob for some reason,” said Alexander. “One day he said, ‘Bob, we should fix up bikes for little kids. They don’t have enough bikes.’ ”
Alexander called around and learned that while there were other bike giveaway programs in town, none was aimed at youngsters in the urban core. Moreover, none taught kids how to maintain a bike once they had one.
What good would it do to “fix up bikes for little kids,” Alexander reasoned, if when the tires went flat the kid or the parents were without the skills or the tools to get the bike rolling again? It would just sit unused.
Key to the FreeWheels for Kids program, therefore, are the Earn-a-Bike classes that Alexander once taught on his own. He now gets help with from two part-time staffers and a number of volunteers.
FreeWheels has hundreds of used bikes stored at a warehouse in the West Bottoms. During the recent holiday bike drive, some 120 were donated one weekend this month alone.
Almost all of them need some work.
Kids 12 and over who sign up for Earn-a-Bike classes learn during six sessions how to grease the bearings, fix the brakes and do other maintenance. Before it’s over, each will have restored two bikes.
Alexander will hand off one of the bikes to a child in grade school. The other is the bike that the kids in the classes get to take home, along with a free helmet, a patch kit and some basic tools.
The twice-weekly classes will start up again next semester at Bethel and Central Middle School, where teachers and administration have been very supportive.
“It has given a lot of our students who aren’t involved in athletics and other after-school programs a way to get involved in something,” said physical education teacher Zach Davies.
Davies also sees value in having them restore bikes for younger children.
“It has them doing something for somebody else, which you don’t see a lot of and I think is very valuable,” he said.
Alexander has taken the public service aspect of the program further by forming bike clubs, two of which are active this school year.
They have put up YouTube videos highlighting unsafe conditions at a park and are working on a plan to develop mountain biking trails.
“We started out with about 20 kids,” said Central Middle testing manager Brock Ainsworth, who is one of the bike club sponsors there. “We ended up with a core of about 10 who show up regularly.”
Running FreeWheels is now Alexander’s full-time job, thanks to funding from the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and other groups, as well as private donations.
But with any charitable group, there are always unmet needs. For the last couple of years, Alexander has hauled bikes in a car trailer, which was never ideal.
Now that his Hyundai no longer runs, he is trying to find a more suitable replacement. Something more permanent than the U-Haul truck Alexander rented for the recent bike donation drive.
“It’s a really urgent need to get a box truck before the middle of January, when our programs begin again,” Alexander said.