It's the middle of a summer morning at Eban Village Apartments, and a half-dozen or so teenagers are gathered in the old leasing office of the nondescript complex two blocks south of Fair Park. A couple of them tool around on a bicycle stand, a couple more idle in a room crammed full of bikes, but, even though the carpet has been ripped out and the underlying concrete treated with sealant, this doesn't look much like a bike shop.
Yet that's what the old leasing office has served as since May, when Project Still I Rise launched Empowered Pedals, a sort of shop class, social entrepreneurship program and part-time job rolled into one.
The program is simple. People and bike shops donate old bikes. The kids, about a dozen so far, mostly from Eban Village, are taught to repair the bikes. The bikes are then sold, on Craigslist or whatever, and the kids keep two-thirds of the money, half going in their pocket, half going into a special savings account that can only be used for a car, a house, or college.
"There are two pathways out of poverty: education and entrepreneurship," said PSIR founder Kevin Mundy. Empowered Pedals hits both, offering a taste of a hands-on, mechanical education no longer offered in schools and giving them experience running a business. Also, the skills to figure out to solve a problem they've never before encountered. "If there's something they don't know, they hop on YouTube," Mundy said. "You'd be amazed at how fast they pick it up."
Sharif, a home-schooled eighth grader, is probably the poster child for the program. ("It has its ups and downs," he says diplomatically when asked if he likes home school). He has to commute to get to Empowered Pedals, hopping on the Green Line every Tuesday and Thursday when the shop's open. He was looking for a part-time job and heard about the program through the friend he works out with and started showing up. While the others take a break, he hangs around the bike stand, an empty nail apron around his waist.
"I'm buying myself a toolkit so I can fix my own bike," he says.
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I ask Darrius, a recent high school grad who lives in the complex, what brought him to Empowered Pedals.
"The money," he says, $75 of it so far.
He's outside, where Mundy and Damien, 16, are washing a bike, and he wanders off momentarily after an orange tabby before returning to help once the cat hides under a bush.
Mundy and Chris Catts, who helped launch the program, envision empowered pedals expanding in both size and scope. Maybe a cycling club. Maybe some mountain biking field trips. But that's all in the future. For now, they're focused on getting donated bikes, fixing them up, and selling them. Their first big sale is Sept. 1 at 3101 Greenwood Street. And, of course, they have a Facebook page.