CHARLOTTE – Like many grassroots movements and local nonprofits, Trips for Kids Charlotte began with a need, an idea and a few passionate people who wanted to see it through. Twenty years ago, those people were Paula Fricke, Keith Caviness and Michael Perrott.
As the story goes, they each reached out to Trips for Kids founder Marilyn Price independently after hearing about her California-based nonprofit on the news. They liked her idea of getting kids in fragile communities or environments outdoors by introducing them to cycling and wanted to start their own chapter in the Queen City.
Price put the trio in touch with one another and they incorporated Trip for Kids Charlotte as a nonprofit soon after. At the time, it was TFK’s second location. Today, there are more than 80 TFK chapters in the U.S., Canada and Israel, all modeled off the original program in California.
The Charlotte chapter has come a long way. Since its inception in 1999, more than 3,000 kids have participated in Saturday rides, over 500 have received bikes through the Earn-A-Bike Program and the Charlotte Re-Cyclery, TFKC’s used bike shop near NoDa, has operated in the black since 2008.
So what’s the secret? How has this “bare bones organization,” brought to Charlotte by three complete strangers, survived and thrived all these years? According to former TFKC board member Harry Johnson, it’s all thanks to community and business support, dedicated volunteers, passionate founders and committed part-time staff.
“Everybody kind of pulls their weight into it and once they find where they fit in, they jump in with both feet and make this organization a success,” he said.
Enjoying the ride
The heart of TFKC is the Ride Program, which provides mountain biking experiences and mentoring to youngsters every Saturday from February through mid-December. TFKC provides used bikes donated by the public and several area cycling clubs, including The Dirt Divas, Cannonballs and Tarheel TrailBlazers, volunteer as adult buddies for the rides.
When the Ride Program started in 2000, TFKC had 10 used bikes. The organization grew substantially in 2002 when a Foundation for the Carolinas grant provided $17,000 to fund the Ride Program and a part-time ride leader. TFKC also received $6,500 for ride expenses from Speedway Charities that same year.
Rides were held at Colonel Francis Beatty Park for many years, but starting March 23, they will move to Southview Recreation Center on Vilma Street in west Charlotte. The new location is not only closer to the neighborhoods TFKC serves, but it also gives kids access to greenways and mountain bike trails that are closer to home.
Tracy Priest, who recently replaced Fricke as TFKC’s executive director, said moving the rides to west Charlotte just made sense. For the past 20 years, kids were being bused to Matthews for bike rides, which wasn’t always feasible and gave the impression that mountain biking and enjoying the outdoors isn’t possible where they live.
“We’re in Charlotte and we’re going way out of Charlotte to give them this experience. They’d go home and wouldn’t be able to do it again until the next Saturday,” Priest said. “This hopefully will give a lot more groups of children the skills and the knowledge of where they can ride, and their parents, too.”
‘We’re really self-sustaining’
It wasn’t long after the Ride Program’s success that TFKC began to see its vision for a used bike shop take shape. At the time, volunteers were repairing donated bikes for rides out of a storage shed in northern Mecklenburg County. Black Sheep Cycles later offered a repair space in their shop, once located on the corner of West Moreboard Street and Grandin Road.
In 2006, TFKC moved its workbenches and tools to its own space and opened the Charlotte Re-Cyclery on the corner of North Davidson and 15th streets, where it still is today.
The Charlotte Re-Cyclery is easy to spot from the road because of the colorful cycling mural on the side of the building. More than 300 volunteers painted it in 2010 using a $4,900 grant from the Arts & Science Council, a paint-by-numbers design from artist Will Puckett and financial and in-kind contributions from Lowe’s Home Improvement and Valspar.
Dick Winters, TFKC board chair, has been volunteering at the Re-Cyclery since 2005. He travels to bike shops across Mecklenburg and Union counties to pick up donations and bikes left behind by students at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.
The bikes are restored by trained mechanics at the Re-Cyclery and either sold to the public, put into TFKC’s programs, used for parts or recycled. The shop also sells accessories and parts, and all of the proceeds help support TFKC programs.
“We’re giving bikes second, third or fourth lives,” Winters said.
The Re-Cyclery is the financial backbone of the organization. Last year, it sold just short of 1,000 bikes, all at a fraction of the cost of a brand new bike.
“Without the Re-Cyclery, we would have to be out there asking for money to support our programs,” Winters said. “We’re really self-sustaining.”
The shop also houses TFKC’s Earn-A-Bike Program, which began in 2005 and allows youngsters to attend classes on bike safety, maintenance and repair to earn their own bike. When they successfully complete the free program, they earn a bike with front and rear safety lights, a helmet and a sturdy lock.
“The Earn-A-Bike Program is about as rewarding as you’ll find. I think there’s a lot of joy there,” said Johnson, who founded the Re-Cyclery with Keith Sorensen. “Whereas a lot of kids grow up and a bicycle is just second nature to them, these kids don’t have a bike and they treasure it. They treasure owning it and it’s something of their own.”
The Re-Cyclery has had five managers over the years, including Sorensen, Terry Lansdell, Glenn Christiansen, Mike Lopez and Eric Supil. Johnson said they’ve each taken the shop to “the next level” in regards to sales, opportunities for growth, outreach and the time dedicated to the position.
They’ve also helped turn the shop into a community cycling hub out of which new ideas and partnerships have blossomed. Johnson said a couple met at the Re-Cyclery and fell in love; the founders of CLT Bike Camp first connected there; and that’s where the idea for bicycle repair stations along the greenways, in NoDa and near Urban Ministries came from. The Re-Cyclery also sets bikes aside to be donated to people in need in Africa.
“I have a hard time listing all the fruit that has dropped from the Re-Cyclery,” Johnson said. “It just keeps propagating itself in the bicycling community in Charlotte.”
TFKC has had a successful and long history in Charlotte, but Priest thinks the organization can do even more. TFKC recently partnered with Charlotte-Mecklenburg School and Strider Balance Bikes, which donated balance bikes for a new initiative.
A balance bike is designed with only foot propulsion to teach the fundamentals of riding. The goal is to get every child in Kindergarten and first grade in CMS to be able to ride a Strider Bike by the end of school year 2020, with an emphasis on Title 1 schools.
“A lot of times, we find kids in third and fourth grade and they don’t know how to ride a bike,” Priest said.
Learning to ride a bike is an important part of growing up, as it teaches kids basic safety skills and gives them freedom of transportation, independence and something to call their own.
“Just being able to ride your bike to the grocery store is a big deal for low-income kids and finding fresh food,” Priest said.
The Re-Cyclery offers a monthly Bicycle Assembly and Repair course, but Priest thinks that could be developed into a membership program where cyclists pay to use the shop’s tools and equipment whenever they want. She also wants to move the Re-Cyclery to a bigger space with room for offices and classrooms, expand the ride program into separate rides for different skill levels and ages and organize day field trips for schools.
But to accomplish more, Priest said TFKC needs more community partners to help organize events and provide supplies and volunteers. She said the group is actively looking for new partnerships and encouraged any interested parties to reach out.
“Any organizations that are helping children, we can be a part of that, and they don’t have to be local,” she said. “As long as we can make an impact with kids in Charlotte, it doesn’t matter where [our partners] are based.”
Want to go?
The Charlotte Re-Cyclery, located at 1132 North Caldwell St., is open Monday through Thursday from 1 to 7 p.m., Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Follow the Re-Cyclery on Instagram @charlotterecyclery or call 704-910-3970 for more information.
Want to get involved?
Visit www.tripsforkidscharlotte.org to learn more about Trips for Kids Charlotte and ways to help. To volunteer or become a community partner, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.