New Avenues for Youth in downtown Portland is a haven for young, homeless Portlanders. The non-profit has been working to get 18-24 year olds off the street since 1997 with a variety of programs — from job placement to the arts and high school tutoring. Now they’ve got a fledgling new program aimed at using bicycles as a tool for transportation, education, and most importantly, empowerment.
Yesterday I met Abby Bohannon, a drop-in counselor and program coordinator who has worked at New Avenues since last fall. She got involved with bicycling when she moved to Portland six years ago and she knows first-hand how its impacted her life. “I ride for exercise, and for stress relief, and for the feeling of self-reliance I get by working on my own bike,” she shared while giving me a tour of their space on SW Oak Street.
Youth come to New Avenue from a variety of backgrounds, but they’re all going through tough times. Abby said they provide three hot meals a day, laundry services, and everything they need to “refocus back into society.” One of those essential items is transportation. Abby said she wanted to introduce bicycles into the curriculum for many reasons. “A lot of the youth that come through here suffer from self-esteem problems, and many things in their lives aren’t reliable.” A well-tuned bicycle, it seems, is just about the most reliable (and affordable) form of transportation there is.
“I created the bicycle group,” Abby continued, “to engage and empower them to take charge of their own transportation.”
As many of us in the bicycle advocacy world know, there is seemingly no limit to what a bicycle can do. It is at the same time a tool for transport, a machine for health, a bridge to new friendships, an escape from stress and into fun, and much more. Abby, a cyclocross racer, even had a few of the youth from New Avenues compete in races last fall. From Abby’s perspective, bicycles are the perfect tool to improve young people’s lives.
The group meets every other Monday for two hours. Abby sets aside some space to work on bikes or to just hang out and talk. Yesterday, things were quiet and just one person showed up. L.T. is from St. Louis and he’s been coming to New Avenues on and off for about two years now. He has Diamondback mountain bike that rode around all last summer, but it’s got a lot of issues; a bent rear dropout, a slightly bent rim, and brakes in dire need of overhaul. Yesterday we decided to fix his brakes. Fortunately, Abby had a set of brake cables and housing that had been donated, so we worked together on the project. None of us are expert mechanics, but I think we did an OK job getting everything sorted out. Hopefully L.T. will be back on the road soon (he’s hoping to get a pair or rain paints and install some fenders too).
At this point, the bike group at New Avenues is still in its formative stages. They’ve only got two old bikes, a useless repair stand that must be 30 years old, a basic tool set, and a few supplies. They could really use some donations to get their little repair and rebuild operation up and running. Abby says she hopes to build the program and eventually send their youth to local bike shops and other bike companies as employees and interns. They’re also looking for volunteers who might want to share their biking expertise. If you’re interested in getting involved, contacted Abby Bohannan at firstname.lastname@example.org or for volunteer opportunities, contact Sama Shagaga at email@example.com.