Working Bikes Cooperative rescues and restores bikes to give others a better life
By Margaret Sheridan, Special to Tribune Newspapers
March 24, 2013
In a ceiling-high, greasy tangle of wheels, fenders, handlebars and derailleurs, Amy Little sees hope.
She’s the co-founder with her husband, Lee Ravenscroft, of Working Bikes Cooperative (2434 S. Western Ave., workingbikes.org), a nonprofit organization of volunteers dedicated to repairing, recycling and donating refurbished bikes to the needy. In a developing country, a discarded bike can haul cargo, transport family or allow a teacher to travel to a remote village.
Working Bikes was hatched in 1998 in the basement of Little’s apartment building. Ravenscroft, then her boyfriend, was using the space to stow trash-heap bikes that he and friends fixed and gave away. While Ravenscroft continues to coordinate the bike rehab, Little makes the business, legal and financial decisions, overseeing property management and strategizing community outreach and educational programs.
In 2012, Working Bikes donated 6,500 bikes, as well as wheelchairs, to charities and refugee groups in Illinois, storm-ravaged regions in the U.S. and throughout the world, including Ghana, Cuba, Kenya, El Salvador, Peru and Angola.
Working Bikes’ physical plant includes a retail sales area, repair shop and storage facility; sales help fund the shipping costs it incurs.
Little, 57, and Ravenscroft, 62, live in Oak Park. Their son, Magnus, 19, is a freshman at Purdue University. Following is an edited transcript.
Q: What’s your background?
A: I graduated from Wellesley College in economics and political science in 1980. Then I joined Peace Corps and served as a volunteer in community development in Guatemala. When I returned home, I was accepted to graduate school at Northwestern University and got an MBA in finance in 1985. Jobs included being a shift supervisor in a corrugated paper products factory in Lancaster, Pa. I worked in financial planning in the automotive parts industry in Detroit and Chicago, and did six years in the banking industry.
Q: You own nine rental properties with 46 tenants. How did you get into real estate?
A: When I was in my 20s, my uncle advised me to save money and invest in old homes and fix them up to rent. I bought my first four-flat when I was 29. When my friends were going to Wrigley Field, I was steaming wallpaper off walls. I do all repairs myself: electrical, plumbing.
Q: What does this mean for Lee?
A: (Laughing.) I’m Lee’s ticket to retirement; he’s a kept man. He’s an electrical engineer by profession, but he’s the full-time volunteer at Working Bikes. He puts in around 50 hours per week.
Q: How did you learn to fix stuff?
A: I’m the oldest of four kids. We grew up in Chester, N.J., and lived in a 100-year-old Victorian house. My parents were always fixing something. My dad, an engineer, was nonsexist in teaching us about plumbing, carpentry, electricity, remodeling.
Q: Who’s the cyclist?
A: I am. Lee is a recyclist, not a cyclist. He didn’t even own (a bike) when I met him. I’ve always used a bike for transportation. I own an old 10-speed bike for long distances and an upright hybrid for city riding.
Q: How does Working Bikes get volunteers?
A: Word-of-mouth. Satisfied customers. Our website. People see us at summer energy festivals, events such as Lollapalooza … and green expos. We have 10 core volunteers. That expands to 50 for shipping parties on Saturdays or events. Volunteers include professional mechanics, people who want to learn basic bike repair, church groups, corporate service teams, parents who bring kids to buy a bike or repair one.
Q: What do volunteers do?
A: Fix bikes. Sell. Strip bikes. Pack containers. Teach. Participate in bike drives. They get hooked. First, people come for a weekend shipping party when we strip and load bikes into 40-foot containers that hold up to 500 bikes. It’s a party with food and music. Then, people return for a class — bike mechanics class.
Q: How is the bike community involved?
A: Bike shop owners around Illinois and the Midwest spread the word. Our website lists drop-off points and donation events.
Q: What’s a perfect day?
A: No cellphone interruptions. I love to read. I just finished “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel. It was about Henry VIII, his wives, political troubles, beheadings. I love to garden and sew.
Q: What’s a great vacation?
A: When I think of travel, it’s usually to Central and Latin America because of language. I like talking to people, and my Spanish is OK. Lee likes working vacations. When we go to New Orleans this spring, I promised him we’d volunteer at a bike cooperative.
Q: Any role model?
A: My mom. She was a home economics teacher who raised four kids and always made time to be involved in the community, like League of Women Voters.
Q: How about friendships?
A: I’ve belonged to the same book club for 20 years. We started when we were single. Sometimes, we don’t even read the book. We just show up for red wine and camaraderie.
Q: What sustains you emotionally from your work at Working Bikes?
A: It’s incalculable. We don’t know the people, personally, who get the bikes. But we see photos of them. We sent hundreds of bikes to New Orleans after Katrina. When Lee and I visited later, we saw how bikes enable people to rebuild lives. They ride to work, and there’s a new bike culture starting to grow.
Our volunteers in Chicago give me joy. They stick with us. Many have been with us since the beginning. One volunteer came when he was 14 and he didn’t know anything about bikes. Now, he is 17, he’s a faithful volunteer and builds bikes from parts. Another student volunteer offered to travel to Ghana on his own money, then Tanzania to organize our bike distribution there. He stayed for a year and taught people in both countries how to ride and repair bikes. A love of bikes connects us.
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