'Every kid wants a bike ever:' Earning wheels at BYKE in Greenmount West

If you ask Lenny Marshall, he'll tell you: "It's easier to get in trouble, moreso than staying clean."

Marshall, 27, speaks from experience. As a teen, he says, he dealt drugs all over the city. Then his daughter was born. He got a full-time job and turned his life around.

Now, in his spare time, he's a mechanic mentor with the Baltimore Youth Kinetic Energy collective, which teaches kids to fix bicycles — and gives them an opportunity to earn one of their own. Marshall hopes to help kids avoid the trouble that he couldn't in his youth.

"If we had something like this as I was coming up," Marshall said, "I probably wouldn't have went that route."

BYKE's founder, Chavi Rhodes, — a 29-year-old graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, opened the shop in Greemount West last year. Her hope was to provide refuge for kids who might not otherwise have a place to go after school.

"Every kid wants a bike ever," Rhodes said. "That's just like a norm."

The idea came to her as she was working on her bike at Velocipede, a do-it-yourself repair shop in Station North. The shop provided equipment and repair support to adults.

Rhodes and Velocipede regular Alphonso Blackstone coordinated with the shop to open its doors just for kids, for free, a few hours a week.

The effort drew a following, and Rhodes, encouraged, secured a fellowship from the Open Society Foundation and a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to move BYKE into the lower floor of an old countertop factory a few blocks from historic Green Mount Cemetery. Local universities and individuals donated bikes.

She hired a team of mechanic mentors with technical knowledge and the ability to serve as role models for kids.

The shop is just up the hill from the Guilford Avenue bridge over the Maryland Institute College of Art. It falls at the intersection of three police districts — the Eastern, Northern and Central — and police say it can be particularly difficult to patrol. For years, cyclists in the bike lane have reported thefts by neighborhood kids.

"Bicyclists were getting harassed there a lot — and kids wanted the bikes," Rhodes said. "And now there's a place right near there where they can get the bikes without doing that."

She's exploring ways to include more violence prevention training at the shop. Her goal is to help kids before they reach what she calls the "school-to-prison pipeline."

She says she's had some success.

"I know kids who have previously stolen bikes start coming here, and they stop stealing bikes," Rhodes said.

Blackstone said the bikes mean more to the kids because they've earned them.

"When they actually put their bike together, and they see all that goes into building a bike, fixing a bike, these youngsters, they really hold on to it, and it keeps them coming back," he said.

Tyree Allen, 11, is still working toward his first bike. He has already picked it out. The color of a green icy pop, it hangs in the back shed.

It'll be his once he completes eight hours of repair work at BYKE. He says he can't wait to ride it.

"I come here every day and earn it," Allen said.

BYKE's efforts have won fans among law enforcement. The Eastern District recently donated 20 bikes in need of repair. Police want 10 back, to give away at future events.

"Anybody that's trying to do good, we love it," Detective Nicole Monroe said.

Parents and grandparents of kids who attend BYKE say it's a blessing for them just to have a place to go after school.

Tina Knox has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 50 years. Her grandchildren go to BYKE, and she knows many of the kids who've been regulars.

"There's no afterschool programs. No recreation centers. Ain't nothing for them to do," she said.

"So it's a good program," she said. "I mean, at least it gives them something to do."

Jon Jon Hart, 17, has been participating since it started at Velocipede.

"I just like it here," he said. He said it keeps him out of trouble.

When he started, he needed help from the mentors to fix his bike.

"I didn't know what I was doing." Now, he said, "I can help."

The shop is open three afternoons per week. Wednesday is for girls only. Each day closes with a group meeting. The kids and mentors sit on couches in a circle, pass around snacks, and play a game of Roses, Thorns and Buds, in which they share something positive, something negative and something they're looking forward to.

Some get shy when it's their turn to share, but not Kynel Rogers, 14. A student at the neighboring Baltimore Design School, he's just picked out his first bike, a sharp little BMX.

His rose? That's easy — it's his new friend.

"I like to refer to my bike as my friend, so if I say 'my friend,' just know that I'm talking about my bike," he said.

His thorn?

"I don't have one — nothing bad happened to me today."

And then, finally, a bud.

"My bud: I'm looking forward to finishing my bike and making it look cool and that's it."

Outside, his mom and three sisters were waiting for him in a parked car.

"He's been doing a great job," said Thomasina Rivers, Rogers' mom. "He's very excited to see how his bike turns out. So I'm excited for him."

Rivers later went to check out the shop herself. She now visits the shop every Wednesday, daughters in tow. They're all fixing bikes.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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