Bikes can be used both as a means of transportation and as a way to enjoy a sunny afternoon exploring the local area, but for a group of young adults in Minneapolis, Minnesota, they are providing much more than that thanks to Full Cycle.
Full Cycle might look to the outside eye like simply an ordinary bike shop but, while it does contain row upon row of bikes and all the parts you might need to fix one, there's a twist. It is in fact a nonprofit bike shop, "a social enterprise" explains Founder and Director, Matt Tennant.
They "focus specifically on homeless youth and ... do that with four different strategies," he says. There's the "nonprofit bike shop which provides paid internships, we do free bike appointments with homeless youth, we run a food shelf specifically for homeless youth that's staffed by homeless youth and we also have a street outreach program."
The problems faced by homeless youth are many. "Right off the bat, once youth are not stably housed, a lot times it's very hard to find employment. A lot of times they can't be reached by an employer because they don't have a stable address or even a stable phone."
But Full Cycle's goal is to 'Break the Cycle' that keeps them from supporting themselves. Tennant says that Full Cycle has become "really good at is connecting with these youth on the streets and then helping them with employment and transportation."
Before even starting the bike shop, Tennant set up a food shelf, Groveland Food for Youth. He'd noticed that while there were services available to help homeless youth, they were still lacking in some respects.
One of those "around accessing food. Young folks were showing up to food shelves and being asked for picture ID, a proof of address and social security card and most of the young folks we work with don't have that let alone all three."
So Tennant decided "to create something where the youth on the streets could come and access food and parenting supplies ... a hastle-free, low-barrier program where they could come get those needs met."
After the food shelf, the idea for the Full Cycle bike shop stemmed from Tennant's work as an outreach worker, which he started 13 years ago. As he was working the night shift in a homeless youth shelter, he would start working on his bike.
"Inevitably youth would watch me and come over and start hanging out. We'd be talking and they'd be asking questions about the bike and what I was doing and pretty soon ... I was handing them a wrench and they were jumping in."
It was a way for them to have a conversation that wasn't about homelessness or unemployment, a way to learn something new. Tennant explains that he "started building bikes at the shelter with the youth who were staying there and just leaving them there for them to use as transportation." And very soon he became know as the guy who could help get people bikes.
This connection that he'd created between the youth and himself gave him the inspiration he needed to set up the Full Cycle nonprofit bike shop, where they not only give bikes to homeless youth and repair them but also have an internship program.
The six-month internship is available to youth aged 23 and under, and consists of two parts. "The first phase, which is the first three months," explains Tennant, "is more like going to school. That's where kids really work through a bike mechanic curriculum and do some basic business skills, working on resume writing, practice interviews, just basic professionalism."
This is a very important part of the program because it teaches the students more than how to work on bikes. The importance of a good resume and interview skills can never be underestimated in today's job market and the chance to practice these skills is invaluable.
If the students do well and enjoy the first part of the program, they can begin the second. "Phase two is more like going to work. Now their shifts get longer, they have more responsibility, they're working on customer bikes, they're interacting with customers, they're using the cash register ... and they're helping us run a business."
Shop Manager and instructor, Crystal Brinkman, explains that "they know how to do basically a full overhaul on a bike, which is taking everything apart and putting it back together and having it be adjusted."
Not only do they get the chance to work on bikes, but they interact with customers and get general work experience that serves them very well when applying for other jobs. It's a great opportunity for the young adults to "have six months of solid employment where they're receiving a paycheck and they're getting connected to other employment so they have the means to support themselves."
But what effect is all this really having on their students? Tennant says that "typically if a young person is involved in some kind of a social service program or they're homeless, that's not a highlight of their life, that's a time they would rather forget and move past."
With Full Cycle's students, however, that is far from the case. "The youth we worked with four or five, six years ago, keep coming back to tell us how things are going, to see how the shop is evolving."
"They become attached," he says. "There's a sense of ownership that happens and they're proud of it too and they want to come back and see how business is doing, meet the new interns, see what's going on and update us on how their life has changed for the better."
Certainly, it's a great way to show the success of their program and the popularity of the program among the community only helps it grow and spread, especially by word of mouth. "It's more than just a bike shop," says Uniquica Russell, a 22-year old Full Cycle intern. "You can get help with housing, and basically whatever you need."
"I feel really lucky that we use bikes as our connector to homeless youth because when you talk about bikes, they're a pretty universally appealing thing," says Tennant. His own passion for his work is evident in the way he talks about his job. "I wanted to find a way to bring things that I felt passionate about and had knowledge to the work that I did with homeless youth and bikes is that key for me."
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