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Spokes Puts Arlington Teenagers at the Wheel

Parks program teaches middle school students about bike repair, offers bikes in return.

Jose Montano sat on his BMX bike as he talked, scuffing his shoes in the dirt he had recently been using as a safety net.

Montano, 13, is in eighth grade at Kenmore Middle School, only three years after he and his family immigrated from Bolivia. He likes to work on his bike, he said, a hobby he picked up only after he came to America.

"All the people in Bolivia had BMX bikes," Montano said. "But I came here, and saw the X Games [on ESPN], and I got interested in extreme sports."

He prefers to skateboard, but he and his friends get kicked out of any place they go to ride their boards. So he started working on his bicycle, tricking it out with spiral spokes. Then he heard about the Community Spokes program, run by the county’s department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources.

Community Spokes runs a bike shop out of Barcroft Park, offering bicycle training to teenagers, teaching them to refurbish discarded bicycles. After 48 hours of work, the teens can earn their own bike from the shop’s stock, and can earn more than one, to outfit their families.

Montano said he might get a new bike, for his sister, but he was mostly interested in a chance to work in a bicycle shop. "There are more opportunities to fix my bike, because they have the right tools," he said. "At home, I only have one tool for everything. It doesn’t always work."

<b>PAM EVERETT DREAMED</b> up Community Spokes late last year, after seeing positive results from similar programs in other cities. Everett, an area supervisor for the recreation department, saw Community Spokes as the perfect combination of many factors.

"I saw all these bicycles sitting in the [police] property yard, not going anywhere, and it seemed like an excellent way to recycle," she said.

It was also a way to reach out to underprivileged teenagers in South Arlington, she said, a way to teach them about fitness, about responsibility, and a way to show them the opportunities the county offered.

Reaching out to teens also meant reaching out to their parents, and Everett knew that some South Arlington families needed to see Arlington’s parks and bike trails for themselves.

"There seems to be some fear within the family, particularly within the Hispanic and Asian communities," she said. "They are not big bike users on the trails, and they have fears about the trails, from what they see in the media."

Coverage of rapes and murders in Rock Creek Park and in Montgomery and Fairfax counties scare some of Arlington’s newest residents off of relatively safe county trails.

<b>SHE FOUND THE FACE</b> of Community Spokes in Jennifer Cho and Bruce Hamilton, who have come up with an even split of duties for the program.

Hamilton is the "bike guy," he said. "I’ve been doing this for 13 years, working in bike shops in the DC area, and in North Carolina."

That didn’t pay enough money once he was married, though, so he moved on to the automobile industry, but jumped at the chance to manage Community Spokes. "This is exactly what I wanted to do," he said, "give something back to the community."

Hamilton started putting together resources for the program last October, and was joined in mid-April, shortly after the kickoff of Community Spokes, by Cho. If Hamilton’s the "bike guy," she said, "I’m the kid chick," with experience working with the county’s Teen Connections program.

They began recruiting possible bike enthusiasts in that program, run at the Arlington Mill Community Center. They thought they would just find a dozen interested in the program, Hamilton said, and were shocked by the response they received among Arlington middle schoolers.

<b>CURRENTLY, THERE ARE</b> 38 students registered for Community Spokes, with 20 now working their way through bicycle repair training in shifts. Most interest comes from middle schoolers, Cho said: between 11 and 14 years old, sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

"The program is open to kids up to 19, but the most attractions is to middle school," she said – primarily because older teens have already started working after school. It’s a multicultural group, she said, drawing Asians, Africans, African-Americans, Latinos, boys and girls, most from the neighborhoods around the park.

The program runs from 3-6 p.m. every day, split into different duties. At the beginning, the teenagers take care of duties left over from their last day at the shop. Then, they move on to learning how to fix bicycles. Or, if they’ve already learned, working on their own bikes, bikes donated to the shop, or bikes that customers bring by for repair.

At this point, Cho said, the program is on track to keep growing, with currently registered Spokes members pulling in their friends. "This is where they hang out," she said.

<b>LATIFA FAULKNER RECRUITED</b> her friends, once she found out about Community Spokes. Faulkner, 12, a sixth grader at Jefferson Middle School, stumbled on the program by accident.

She and her sister Shareka, 13, were leaving a boxing class at the nearby Barcroft Sports Center when they noticed the bike shop. "The door was open, so I came in to see what it was," Latifa Faulkner said. "The first day I came, I decided this could be something I could really be into."

She and her sister live right across the street from the shop, and started bringing their friends, including Asli Iman, 12.

"I like it because I get to fix bikes, get good exercise, and meet people," she said.

While the program obviously teaches bike repair, Cho said, it also emphasizes fitness. At the end of every day, she and Hamilton lead their young students on a bike ride, and take longer trips on Fridays, trips to movies, parks and picnics. In future, they want to take the group camping, and into Washington, DC.

It teaches fitness, shows them a new way to get around the county, and has already opened up new vistas.

"When we went to the movies, four kids had never been before," she said. "It was all new to them, getting the tickets, the popcorn, everything."