Wheels for Winners donates 100-plus bikes despite shortage

Local nonprofit experiences highest demand ever for bicycles since reopening mid-June.
A volunteer and bike earner pose with a bike.
Photo Courtesy of Wheels for Winners
WfW volunteer Alan Crossley and a bike earner celebrate the haul.

Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, masks, even steak — these are just a few of the commodities that have faced shortages during the past few months of pandemic-era uncertainty. Add bicycles to the list of in-demand items.

“I have been with Wheels [for Winners] since 2005 and we have never experienced the level of demand we have seen since our June 22 reopening,” says WfW treasurer Richard Castelnuovo. After shuttering its doors in mid-March, the earn-a-bike nonprofit has been scrambling to adjust its services to continue connecting individuals with community service opportunities in exchange for bicycles, which has been WfW’s mission since 1992.

While WfW closed shop, mechanics were busy restoring old bikes and the nonprofit reprioritized its partners due to the housing and food inequalities resulting from the virus’s spread. Regardless of the hurdles, Wheels for Winners managed to provide more than 100 bikes in less than a month since resuming operations.

“We could not have accomplished this big push without a little creativity and a lot of sweat from our volunteers,” Castelnuovo says. “Literally … volunteers were wearing masks and lugging bikes in 90-degree temperatures,” he quips.

Shop reconfiguration, deep cleaning and pandemic-friendly purchases were just a few of the adaptations made in order to resume business as (un)usual. But like other local for-profit bike stores, WfW has faced climbing shortages of bikes. The surge in outreach drained the nonprofit’s reserve of bikes that were refurbished last winter. Surviving on both monetary and bike donations, WfW relies heavily on the generosity of the community in order to provide about 150 community service volunteers who help out between May and September with a bike of their own.

“For the groups we serve, bikes may even be more important than for the average public. Not only do they provide opportunities for safe recreation and exercise, but they provide needed transportation,” Castelnuovo says. “We have heard a number of stories of earners who are not comfortable using public transportation to go to work or shop.”

So in working with community groups such as the East Madison Community Center, Bayview Foundation, Lussier Community Education Center and more, WfW has been able to rent trucks for transporting bikes into the community — rather than shoving all these folks in WfW’s poorly ventilated garage off Atwood Avenue. The WfW team is working closely with partners to ensure that any child or community service earner who wants a bike can get one, and can do so safely.

A tent and bike at a delivery event at the Bayview Foundation.

Photo Courtesy of Wheels for Winners

Bike delivery events like this one at Bayview help bring WfW's services directly to the community.

The hundreds of bikes that are dropped off at Wheels for Winners each year are revived by volunteer mechanics — they logged 2,975 hours in 2019 — before being inspected and fit to the earner upon arrival. Helmets, locks and basic bike safety are also provided in exchange for hours spent volunteering in their own neighborhoods. Earners conducted nearly 5,000 volunteer hours last year.

“While there are still opportunities to do community service including working in food pantries, tending community gardens and cleaning up trash, there are new challenges for partners working with kids to arrange and complete these activities,” Castelnuovo says. “Our partners are overwhelmed trying to help their communities with priorities such as food and rent … [so] instead of requiring the completion of 15 hours of community service before bikes are provided, we are allowing youth coordinators to obtain bikes based on a commitment to work with kids to complete their community service in the future.”

Instilling values of volunteerism and upcycling — in more ways than one — when working with their diverse group of earners is integral to WfW’s mission of encouraging responsible and active involvement right on your own block. With regular patrons ages 6 to 69, across race, gender and socioeconomic status, these folks attempt to transcend identifiers that separate us, and rather focus on sustainability and unity. Veteran organizations and homeless shelters connect WfW with adult audiences, while community centers and public schools ensure kids can peddle their hearts out. (Partnerships with Freewheel and Working Bikes sent 250 bikes across the Atlantic to Africa last year.)

Clearly, there’s a reason WfW has persisted for 28 years, and it isn’t because the bikes it shares are brand new with pink sparkly butterflies, well-adjusted seat cushions or super comfy handlebars. Rather, the nonprofit thrives because of its altruistic mission of supporting and building community. By first providing the bikes, and then following up with repair events at parks and schools, WfW sets people up for a lifestyle change — not just something to do instead of watching cartoons.

“It was built around the concept that everyone has something to give … We rely on the generosity of gifts and grants to pay rent, buy helmets and locks and cover other expenses,” says Castelnuovo. “These combined efforts have provided bikes to kids who might not otherwise have the opportunity to ride, and have helped these kids maintain their bikes in safe working condition.”

Folks who want to help out can donate online or volunteer as a mechanic in addition to in-kind donations, and there’s no better time to clean out the garage and donate a bike.

“We have found that as people have more free time, they are cleaning out their homes and apartments … As such, we have received a tremendous amount of bike donations,” says Neil McCallum, WfW’s shop manager. “The community in general has been eager to find a good home for that old bike in the basement or garage.”

Castelnuovo says he gets the most pleasure in seeing the joy on the face of a bike earner who is trying out their new bike for the first time.

“And you can see this joy even with masks on,” Castelnuovo says.