Green Notes

Green Notes: Reinventing the wheels

2013-04-03T00:00:00Z Green Notes: Reinventing the wheelsLauri Harvey Keagle lauri.keagle@nwi.com, (219) 852-4311 nwitimes.com

Lee Ravenscroft was tired of seeing scrappers driving down the street with trucks overflowing with bicycles.

"We knew there was a better fate for these bikes then melting them down," he says.

In 2000, Ravenscroft founded Working Bikes, a non-profit group that recaptures unwanted or discarded bikes and repairs them.

The bikes are either sold in the group's shop, shipped to developing countries in Africa, Central American and South America in partnership with other non-profit groups or donated to local youth groups.

The organization gathers about 9,000 bikes a year and rehabs about 2,500 of them.

"We're a recycling organization," Ravenscroft says. "There are many other groups focused on biking versus cars and other transportation and energy issues.

"What we're doing is unique. We're lucky to have such a large biking community so we can focus on recapturing bikes."

Ravenscroft, a retired electrical engineer from Oak Park, bought a 117-year-old warehouse in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood six years ago. It serves as the hub for Working Bikes.

The brick building is packed with bikes of all shapes, sizes, colors, makes and models. Hand-made signs directing shoppers to racks of handle bars and various other parts.

Over the years, the group created several collection sites as the project grew. They now boast 42 drop off locations in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa, including spots in Crown Point and Valparaiso.

After rehabbing the donated bikes, they ship some of them disassembled, with extra parts included in the crates, to developing countries.

"They know they have to fix the bikes," he says. "They get 95 percent of them running They're in good condition. They are mostly from college students who buy them, bring them to campus and never ride them."

Other bikes are sold in the shop on the warehouse's main floor to fund the charity work.

Upstairs, about 10 volunteers work to repair the bikes on bikes a few days a week.

Aaron Brown of Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood is the senior mechanic in the shop. He has been with Working Bikes for eight years and started as a volunteer.

"It's definitely better than knowing the money earned by your work is going into some company owner's pocket," Brown says. "I definitely agree with the mission."

Jack Millerick of Chicago's Beverly neighborhood is a retired Chicago firefighter. He volunteers as a mechanic with Working Bikes.

"One of my neighbors had a bike drive and that's how I got involved," he says. "I'm a casual cyclist but I like to tinker. There's people here from all walks of life."

In addition to the bikes shipped overseas, Working Bikes donates bikes in fleets to youth bike clubs in Chicago through the Boys and Girls Clubs and after school programs.

"It's all about getting kids active," Ravenscroft says.

They also participate in a number of sustainability events, green energy fairs and Earth Day celebrations.

In the basement, Ravenscroft has his "mad scientist's lab" where he creates pedal-powered "bike machines" that can power a record player and speakers, charge an iPod or cell phone or spin a globe, all for use at the fairs and events get kids interested in cycling.

"We teach kids about working on bikes, about getting active, about science and engineering and recycling," he says. "It's all connected."

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