As a kid, Ethan Alexander relied solely on his bicycle to take him everywhere, even in the harsh Michigan winters. His bike played a major role in his life because of the freedom it allowed him. It became a symbol for independence. As he grew older, Alexander started his collection. He made a major hobby out of fixing old bicycles and decided that he wanted to spend his life helping young people discover the freedom a bike can give them. Eight years ago Ethan Alexander formed Open Roads. Now, he inspires hundreds of kids and adults to ride their bikes each year.
Open Roads is a non-profit organization that has its sights set on getting kids, ages 8-18, riding their bikes. Through several programs, Open Roads gives Kalamazoo youth the opportunity to earn a donated bike or help fix an old one.
Last year, through their “Earn-A-Bike” program, Open Roads donated a total of 450 bicycles to kids all over Kalamazoo. This program doesn’t just donate bikes but teaches kids how to build and repair bikes that need to be fixed.
At the beginning of the program each kid is given a disassembled bike. To earn their bike, they have to reassemble it and repair/replace old parts. At the end of the program, participants get to keep the bike they have built, but they will learn more than just how to repair a bike. Through the process of building their bicycle, kids will learn invaluable social skills. Participants in the program learn to work as a team, to maintain social relationships, and not to give up when they fail.
“We want to empower youth to take charge of their future,” said Erin Sloan, the program manager at Open Roads.
After kids earn their bike, they can return and help repair other people’s bicycles at public events, like the Fixapalooza. The Fixapalooza is an event open to the public where Open Roads staff and volunteers teach participants how to repair bicycles. Sloan recalls one girl that did just that.
During her Earn-A-Bike experience, Shenea was quiet and reserved. She had to stop several times while fixing her flat tire because she wasn’t strong enough. She was slow to finish her repairs, but the extra work was worth it. Six months later, Sloan saw her again, this time at Fixapalooza. She was “a leader amongst children,” Sloan said. She was running around helping people much older than herself repair their bikes. Open Roads gave her the confidence she needed to be outgoing and meet new people. This is just one account of success that Open Roads had in a kid’s life.
Open Roads wants to meet kids on their level. The workers and volunteers understand that some kids have troubles in their lives, so they give as many chances as it takes for every kid to earn their bike. Any kid willing to earn a bicycle will be given the opportunity.
“[We] want to give kids that need extra patience the opportunity at Open Roads to learn how to navigate social situations positively,“ said Erin Denay, executive director of Open Roads.
To make sure that the programs are improving every season, the Youth Advisory Board meets once a month to discuss how the programs could be improved. The Board is made up of 10 active members ages 14-17 in the Kalamazoo area. It’s important to have youth input because it’s youth that Open Roads serves.
“We think we know kids, but they [the Youth Advisory Board] will know better,” said Sloan.
These members also help out at big events such as the Fixapaloozas and community rides. Safety is their biggest concern. Shawn Behrens, a member of the Youth Advisory Board and a junior at LN, is a dedicated safety trainer.
“I make sure they’re wearing helmets and can be seen at night. All bikes are checked for rust in case they [the riders] get cut,” said Behrens.
Behrens describes being a part of the board as, “It’s more fun than work. I like it because it’s open spirited and fun if you make it fun.”
The Youth Advisory Board also has personal benefits for members; it gives experience in mechanical repairs, working with kids, and functioning in a non-profit environment.
“[The Youth Advisory Board] is a stepping stone for a career in the mechanical field,” said Denay.
Members of the Youth Advisory Board usually start with Open Roads at a young age; they earn their bike or go to the Fixapaloozas, but it’s never too late to start. Teens looking to be a part of the advisory board can find more information on the Open Roads website.
Open Roads gets all of its revenue through grants from local foundations and individual donations of rideable bicycles. Open Roads will accept bikes for kids of all ages if they are free of rust and in rideable condition.
Consider donating to Open Roads if you have an unused bike that you want to go towards a good cause in Kalamazoo.