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‘I’m here for each and every one of them’

By Christian Thorsberg

Northside Preparatory High School

Photos by Christian Thorsberg

In Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, where crime, drugs and gangs remain a serious plight, Blackstone Bicycle Works is a place that positively influences youth and betters their community. For years, Woodlawn and its surrounding neighborhoods have been making headlines for its shootings, drug busts and robberies. Despite numerous community improvement programs and initiatives, according to the Chicago Tribune, which runs a neighborhood crime website, Woodlawn ranks in the top half of 77 Chicago neighborhoods in violent, property and quality of life crimes.


Jake Ament is a program officer of the Woodlawn branch at LISC Chicago (Local Initiative Support Corporation), an organization that works towards the development of business, education and health in various Chicago neighborhoods. He finds the lack of opportunities for youth to be a glaring problem and a factor in the neighborhood negativity.


“There are a lot of things that are difficult for youth. You have to travel a long way to find business and places to go or get together with your friends. It changes what you’re familiar with that might be both a difficult and dangerous thing,” Ament said.


Stephanie Robinson, representative of the Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development program in Chicago, says peer pressure and the desire to fit in are leading to gang involvement, violence and unnoticed bullying in the community.


However, the wide range of ongoing struggles in and around Woodlawn today do not make it a special, or hopeless, case. In fact, as Ament put it: “There’s a large mix of challenges and great things that are happening at the same time. Woodlawn is no different than any other community.”


Nonetheless, the amount of organizations focusing on youth outreach and interaction is still lacking.


“I think that having more leaders in the community, and more mentoring programs, would really make a difference,” said Robinson.


Blackstone Bicycle Works remedies that through various after-school programs. It has become an advocate in its community, making positive impacts on the lives of Chicago youth.  The organization educates young students about bike safety and repair skills, as well as providing them with mechanical knowledge and job experience. Since it reopened in 2004 after a 2001 fire, Blackstone has motivated its kids to focus their energy on benefitting the community, their friends, and themselves.


"The main goal of the program is to get kids more engaged with bicycles, take them outside the environment in which they’re used to, and help them explore different options...things they can do with their lives besides the things everybody else is doing,” said Jamel Triggs, youth mentor and instructor at Blackstone.


Blackstone also offers an Earn-A-Bike program, which rewards youth who spend more than 24 hours working and learning at the shop with their own two-wheeler to take home.


“The goal is to have them take ownership and say, ‘This is my bike, I earned it. I did the 24 hours, and this is my bike,’ ” he said.


Educationally, Blackstone continues to motivate and provide the kids with the tools they need to succeed in school, instilling in them homework first, then play. By teaching them these positive habits, Blackstone has sent numerous kids to college, helping them out with any fees they may have. During the school year, for students of all ages, University of Chicago students are brought in to tutor and help with homework.


Triggs believes that the continuation and growth of Blackstone’s welcoming and diverse culture will help to combat crime in the community.


“Now everybody’s friends with each other, and once they grow up they don’t have to worry about all the gang-related activity that’s been happening, because these kids know each other. They trust each other.”


Operating as a retail and resale bike shop in addition to providing for these kids, Blackstone is constantly buzzing, both inside and out. Whether it be loading or unloading bikes, fixing them up, or scavenging for extra parts, no matter what time of day, it is sure to be busy. However, to Blackstone mentors like Triggs, it is all worth it.


“The most rewarding for us is when you get that one individual kid who comes in and doesn’t have many friends, and they blossom into something that’s positive.”


Having grown up as a kid through the Blackstone program, Triggs knows firsthand how it can shape and positively influence someone. Now, as a youth mentor and instructor, a position he himself developed through dedication towards the kids, Triggs finds himself back with the shop, mentors, and youth that he loves.


“I care about these kids like they’re my kids. It’s my service to them. They know that I’m here for each and every one of them. That is my job. That is my purpose.”


According to Ament, programs like Blackstone are exactly what the community needs.


“Just to have an opportunity for youth to get out, and interact in a safe space, is a very positive thing.”


A fireman like no other

By Christian Thorsberg

Northside Preparatory High School


In the small workroom of a South Side firehouse, a bicycle is born—and swapped for a high honors report card.


Kirkland Flowers, an energetic and big-hearted Chicago fireman, has spent more than 20 years stationed at Engine 16, motivating neighborhood youth to stay in school.


Previously located at 40th and Dearborn Streets in the heart of the Robert Taylor Homes, Engine 16 was known throughout the city as one of Chicago’s busiest houses, and among the toughest places to work. As Kirkland Flowers describes, it was a rough part of town.


He explained: “11,000 people lived within two blocks of the firehouse and 70 percent of them were kids.”


Often from single-family homes, countless youth would hang in or around the firehouse, unable to read or write, severely lacking proper education.


“The firemen became surrogate parents to these kids,” said Flowers.


Knowing that the situation had become out of hand, firefighter Flowers took innovative action.


“I told the kids that if they stayed in school for a full marking period, got good grades and weren’t absent or tardy, then we would give them each a bike. The next day, 50 or 60 kids came into the firehouse with their report cards.”


Their enthusiasm encouraged Flowers. “I knew that we could make a real impact.”


In 1992, the firemen of Engine 16 started FITCH (Firefighters/Paramedics in the Community Helping), hoping to expand and develop this new idea. Soon, 20 to 30 kids a day from around the city were showing up to Flowers with their grades in hand. Quickly, however, a problem arose— where to get the bikes.


Flowers asked Chicago firemen and citizens to bring in old, used and new bikes or bike parts to the firehouse basement. There, he examined what he had and built and refurbished bikes to present to the kids. The program grew, working better than expected.


“The kids who used to hang around the firehouse were never seen again [once they got the bicycles],” he said.


Since FITCH has started, the Robert Taylor Homes have been torn down, and many of the kids have moved away. However, that hasn’t stopped Flowers and FITCH from giving out between 1,200 and 1,300 bikes per year.


“That’s another 12 to 13 hundred kids per year who are on high honor roll,” Flowers said proudly.


In addition to the immediate impact Flowers’ work has made, FITCH has also helped students by “keeping them informed of the benefits of education, and the realities of what happens without one,” while assisting them in reaching their long-term educational goals.


“We have helped many kids graduate from college,” said Flowers. “We provide them with welfare, clothing and help with assignments. In one instance, we even raised $1,500 for a student to pay for his books.”


During the Christmas season, Flowers delivers more than 60 new bikes to “kids who have nothing, and don’t get any other presents.”


Flowers recently reached a partnership with Schwinn, a major bike manufacturer that donates more than 1,000 new bikes annually to FITCH. FITCH has also set up reward programs with 30 Chicago schools on the South and West Sides of the city, though he works with all kids, regardless where they are from.


“If a kid came to me from Poland with his report card, I’d give him a bike,” he said amiably.


FITCH believes they have benefited both the kids and the neighborhood, influencing them in positive and productive ways.


“Our whole community knows us, appreciates what we do, and responds to our work well. They donate to us, and lots of people help out.”


Today, the program continues to go strong. Nine-hundred bikes were given out in May alone, with many others still on their way. Busier than ever, Flowers feels that no matter what he gives out, he receives much more in return.


“I love watching (the kids) grow up, develop and learn. Seeing them come back as adults to thank me, having received a good education, not in jail, making positive decisions and moving in the right direction… I feel that is the most rewarding.”


Just under two years ago, Engine 16 moved a block away to 39th Street and Wabash Avenue. In the new building, Flowers has his own work area where he teaches kids how to fix and restore bikes. His most recent project involves refurbishing and distributing more than a dozen bikes to a West Side Little League team. Despite retiring in three years, he doesn’t see himself ever leaving FITCH.


“Even when I leave the Fire Department, I’ll be back here with the bike program.” Flowers loves his kids, and undoubtedly, his kids love him.


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