In the 30 years St. Louis BWorks (you might know it as Bicycle Works) has been in existence, its directors estimate that more than 10,000 youth have taken part in one or more of its three signature programs.
“I don’t know where I’d be today…,” said Jason Parker about his involvement with the organization. And he means it. “Bicycle Works kept a lot of us out of trouble. I was there probably every day of the week. At one point, I had a key to the building.”
Parker spent from the summer of 1993 to the late ’90s at BWorks, starting at age 10, and credits the nonprofit with helping shape him into the man he is today: a 36-year-old working full time as the diversity program coordinator at Buffalo University while simultaneously earning his PhD in higher education administration. His hope is to become president of a community college and make education equitable for everyone.
As someone who hated school growing up, the irony of working in academia is not lost on Parker. “I was that kid on a Sunday night who dreaded Monday. But, I made it to college, and that’s not something that would’ve happened without Bicycle Works.
“At first, I thought I’d get a business degree, since it would be the fastest route to just make money,” he continued. “But [at Bicycle Works] I learned there’s so much more to life, and I realized I never want a job that doesn’t help others.”
Parker still keeps in touch with several of the Bicycle Works volunteers, talking to some weekly. A few of those early volunteers include Kathi Beyer, Virginia McDonald, Drew Jones and Marilyn Behle.
“And Roy, he was a father-figure to me,” Parker said, referring to Roy Bohn, founder of the organization.
Even though he now lives 1,000 miles away from where he grew up, Parker says Bicycle Works continues to factor in his life every day, whether he’s speaking with a past mentor or helping mentee students of his own.
Bicycle Works can trace its roots back to 1985, when Roy Bohn lived on the 3800 block of Shaw Avenue in South St. Louis and noticed neighbors who either didn’t have a bicycle or rode two or three people per bike.
“I remember some would use their sneakers rubbing on the back tire in place of working brakes,” he said.
As a cyclist, Bohn knew the freedom of cycling and how it could empower a person. “Most youngsters want a bike of their own to ride. Bicycle Works operated on ‘earning’ those bikes as a personal investment rather than giving a youth a bicycle, which usually meant much less — easy come, easy gone,” he said.
The formal establishment came in 1988, when Bicycle Works incorporated as a nonprofit and moved out of Bohn’s garage and backyard and into its first building, which realtor Wayne Fallioni donated. The organization quickly outgrew that space and moved next door to 4102 Shenandoah.
In that somewhat rough-around-the-edges area, Bohn’s dream continued to grow. The new building meant more volunteers. It also meant more space, enough for kids to work on donated bicycles and also to do their homework and study after school.
At the end of the Earn-A-Bike program, when the kids could properly ride a bicycle and fix it, they would receive a bike to keep for themselves. The organization also implemented a system whereby youth could earn points and “purchase” items by improving grades in school and helping out with community service projects.
“People donated more than bikes,” Parker said. “A lot of people donated computers as well. We had a room full of computers, and one of the volunteers, Frank Kratky, began repairing them.”
By the mid-’90s, the Earn-A-Computer program was born. “I still use some of the skills I learned in those early computer classes,” Parker shared. “And I know some of the kids that took those classes went on to work in IT.”
Bicycle Works provided a space for youth around the neighborhood to flock to and learn, and at the end of the semester you would see young, bright eyes beaming and showing off their report cards, said Bohn.
The children looked up to the nonprofit’s founder, and he was well-respected in the neighborhood. “Roy had a great impact on people in St. Louis, more than he knows,” Parker said.
A Bump in the Road
During the late ’90s, as Bicycle Works continued to grow, Bohn and the board of directors came to an unsalvageable difference of opinion. It’s an old story, often played out where the dreamer envisions one direction and the administrators see another. Not long after, the board voted Bohn out of the organization.
“I am a dreamer, not a good manager,” said Bohn.
“It was a tough time,” said Parker. “As kids, we were angry that Roy was ousted. It felt like we weren’t considered. Now, I understand why the board did it, and it was probably for the best.”
A well-oiled momentum kept Bicycle Works moving forward despite the cracks in its framework. But this could only be sustained for so long, and, by the early 2000s, it was apparent the organization was struggling.
Concerned about a possible demise, a former volunteer urged a cycling friend who had some extra time and a desire to help to look into Bicycle Works. In 2003, that new face, Patrick Van Der Tuin, dug in, recruited other energetic volunteers and within a few years had the organization back on the right path.
The model for what was now two programs, Bicycle Works and Byte Works, was solid and proven to work. However, the programs still struggled financially. Questions arose about scrapping Byte Works. Was it viable? Was it worth the effort? Elements of both programs needed to shift due to what the volunteers were capable of sustaining.
With a shoestring budget and a small, committed group of supporters, the organization found its gearing and slowly pushed forward, rebuilding from scratch. After a few more years, things stabilized.
Board members Bob Foster and Ben Hockenhull pushed the rest of the board to create a paid position for Van Der Tuin, and, in 2011, after eight years of volunteering, he became the operations manager and then the executive director in 2014. The organization continued to grow, incorporating yet another program, Book Works, whereby youth would learn to write their own book during an eight-week course.
With two and then three programs, Bicycle Works slowly began transitioning its name to the umbrella BWorks, finalizing the change in 2011. The third program also meant BWorks needed more space.
After an exhaustive search, a 13,000-square-foot former carriage house in Soulard was secured by a private donor and, after renovation, became BWorks’ new home. In a fun twist, the organization gathered about 100 volunteers to move the bicycle component of BWorks by bicycle the three miles to its new location.
Today, BWorks continues to grow with services and programs. It has a bike shop that sells used, adult bicycles, and this is where most of the funding to sustain its free programs comes from. It’s able to support eight full-time and part-time paid staff members. Having staff means more youth are able to go through BWorks’ programs, with one part-timer teaching 80 to 100 students per year.
“And with volunteers, even more programs at our building and out in the community can take place,” said Van Der Tuin. “There’s a constant waiting list of schools and families who want to take part in our Earn-A-Bike and Earn-A-Computer programs.”
At its core, BWorks is about community, sustainability, service and enjoyment. Van Der Tuin is continuously finding new ways for the organization to be utilized. BWorks works with other nonprofits, it recycles bicycles and ships ones it can’t use to other parts of the world, it offers vocational skills to prisoners at jails in Illinois, and, of course, it provides youth an opportunity to earn a bicycle, a computer and write a book.
But it’s much more than that, as is evident from Jason Parker and the thousands of others who have been shaped by BWorks during the past 30 years. The organization teaches confidence and character, teamwork and responsibility — tools that will last lifetime.
“I would not have goals, learned how to set objectives, without Roy and the others,” said Parker. “Today, I find myself having conversations with students that Roy and other volunteers had with me when I was a kid.”
Author: Carrie Zukoski is the owner of Open Road Communications, a public relations business based in St. Louis, and is also a tour guide, cyclist and board member at St. Louis BWorks.