They loaded up their bikes in the pouring rain. The north Texas weather was not playing nice, but the dedicated boys of the Mercy Street Bike Shop wouldn’t be deterred. They were going to bike the 20 miles from West Dallas to camp at Cedar Hill State Park even if they were cold and wet. The power of community kept them going.
A pile of broken bicycles greets visitors at the Bike Shop’s front door. “We’re not the world’s best bike shop,” quickly confessed Will Harris, Mercy Street’s Bike Shop Coordinator. But for the neighborhood of West Dallas, the small workspace tucked next to a parking-lot-turned-basketball-court is exactly the bike shop they need. Will runs the microenterprise and the associated youth programs, offering inexpensive repairs for community bike riders while creating life skill experiences for local students.
Will began volunteering at Mercy Street over eight years ago, starting out as a soccer coach for the youth sports program. But once he met Johnny Garippa, the Bike Shop’s original coordinator, his interest was sparked. “For me, it’s always been counseling over mechanics,” shared Will. Long conversations about parents, school, and relationships regularly take place over a broken set of brakes or a deflated tube.
But friendship isn’t the only goal for Will: he is also passionate about the self-sufficiency that bicycles offer. That’s why the Earn a Bike program is central to the Bike Shop mission. The six-week program invites a small group of West Dallas students to learn to build their own bike then learn to safely ride it. For the past three years, Will has worked full time for Mercy Street, earning his League Cycling Instructor certification from the League of American Bicyclists along the way. Over that time, he has seen how the Earn a Bike program and summer bike camps are important teaching opportunities. “Bikes are incredible tools for development,” said Will. “And building a bike is a great long-term project to build patience.”
Three young men have built up quite a bit of patience at the Bike Shop. The oldest of the Bike Shop’s student staff is Vernon Duncan. At 20 years old, he has been a part of Mercy Street for most of his life. “I started playing baseball at Mercy Street but I really wanted a mentor,” shared Vernon. “When they told me that they didn’t have a mentor available right then, I went over to the Bike Shop and met Johnny.”
Vernon participated in the Earn a Bike program three times before he was hired as a shop hand. He was then brought on as a summer intern, and last year he was hired as the Bike Shop manager. Vernon works at the bike shop after his classes at El Centro College are finished each day, and then puts in plenty of hours on the weekend and summer break. “I learn better when I’m working with my hands,” Vernon said. The mechanical side of bike repair comes to Vernon honestly–his dad owns a car repair shop and used to race cars.
Racing isn’t a life goal for Vernon, though. Once he is finished with his classes at El Centro, he plans to continue his education at a state university with a focus in criminal justice. Then his sights are set on law school followed by a legal defense job for inner city kids who need a lawyer who will look out for them. “After that, I want to come back to Dallas to help my neighborhood – and run for District Attorney,” Vernon adds with a good dose of youthful self-assuredness.
Watching the way Will interacts with his students, it isn’t hard to understand why they are confident in their abilities. “These boys run the shop,” said Will. “I’m here to create a safe and healthy environment where kids can be themselves–these three guys do most of the real bike work.” That kind of support and freedom has proven itself successful in countless girls and boys who have spent time among the tools and spare bike parts.
Will has also passed along his love of nature and exploration. When we asked Vernon about his favorite spot in Dallas, he quickly replied with “the levy.” The sprawling green grass along the Trinity River is a regular spot for adventures with the Mercy Street Bike Shop crew, offering a peaceful getaway for younger riders and a prime look-out spot onto the rest of the city.
For Vernon, his dedication to the Bike Shop is part of his bigger understanding of the world. “Christ is an influential part of why I do this,” shared Vernon. “I know that I can be an example for these kids–there are a lot of other things that they can fall into, but instead they are here working on bikes with us.”
The two younger Bike Shop staff members have followed Vernon’s example. Jadus Chandler, 17, has been working at the Bike Shop for just a year but he loves taking things apart and is planning a career as an underwater welder. Jake Anderson, also a 17-year-old, got involved with the Bike Shop more than five years ago, drawn to the sport and action of bike rides around the city. Jake has now completed five Earn a Bike classes and has proven himself to be a hard worker. “Once during school break Jake came into the shop when no one was here and cleaned the whole thing. At first I thought we’d been robbed,” Will proudly shared. Jake will take that grit and leadership with him when he begins his college career this coming fall. He’s been accepted to several schools on a basketball scholarship and plans to earn his degree in Mechanical Engineering.
For Will, watching students find their place in the Bike Shop program is key. “I keep our program small on purpose and donations to the Bike Shop are used to offer more paid hours and raises to the student workers,” said Will. “I want them to know that their time and their work is valuable–and it keeps the money in the neighborhood.” Donations also come to the shop in the form of used bicycles, which are then scavenged for parts that can be used for repairs.
The mantra at the Mercy Street Bike Shop is “If I build it, I can fix it.” That saying extends far beyond bicycles, offering disadvantaged students in West Dallas the opportunity to build a life, a skill, and a family.
If you are interested in learning more about the Bike Shop at Mercy Street, please visit their website.
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Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Hunter Lacey.