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A Bike: The Vehicle for Changing Lives

Russ of Rusty’s Bicycle Recycle Uses the Bike to Help Many —

Biking to work or to get around, for recreation and sport, for pleasure — it’s what bike enthusiasts do. It’s a life-change choice they’ve made, a self-actualization type of choice.

But what about the bike changing lives in the form of life lessons or skills, what about it being the vehicle for second chances, or the vehicle for giving back to the community?

Rusty and volunteer leadership

Russ (Rusty) Durham is among a circle of people in Central Florida who see the bike as a vehicle for changing lives; a circle that includes bike shop owners and businesses, charities, local leaders and everyday people, and an Orlando area school. For more than fourteen years, Durham has run a non-profit called Rusty’s Bicycle Recycle that refurbishes bikes and gives them away to those who need them.

He operates out of an 11 by 19 square foot repair room in a business-industrial complex in Longwood.  There’s no paid staff, just volunteers. It’s the latest iteration of his passion, which started years ago repairing bikes for kids in the neighborhood, whose dads were no longer around. He also ran a bicycle repair ministry at one time.

Parts Equal the Whole

Every Friday during the school year, you’ll find Durham at Orlando Junior Academy (OJA), a private school on East Evans Street in College Park. He was a music teacher there at one time, but now does volunteer work at OJA.  In the afternoon he teaches drum corps. In the morning, it’s bike repair 101 for middle school age kids. Here, Durham doesn’t miss a beat. Bike repair and refurbishing, like the drums, requires learning the basics so that everything is in sync. He wants his students to approach rehabbing a bike from a position of strength. That means doing things sequentially.

“Every bike has a different challenge,” says Durham. “The students need to figure out which sections of the bike need repair, the parts needed, and the order in which the repairs are done.”

The students start out by learning something as simple as how to handle tools and the importance of putting them back and storing them properly. They learn why wearing eye protection is important. Then they start with the basics; how to change a bike tube and tire, how to install wheels on the front and rear, as well as how to install a bike chain.

“The goal is for the students to assess each bike on its own merits,” says Durham. “It’s problem solving.”

The students also learn how their skills can benefit others, as the bikes go back out into the community, filling a need for basic transportation beyond walking.

From the Kid Perspective

It’s a little before 8 a.m. on a Friday and Durham’s 6th grade class of 10 students, all in school uniform, is lined up at the door of a classroom reserved for Engineering. It’s the first of three bike repair classes he’ll teach on Fridays, with 7th and 8th graders coming in later. The kids enter, put on their goggles and safety glasses, and are ready to get to work. Durham gathers up the students and explains the lesson for the day; taking off the back and front bike tires, and then putting them back on. Durham, with torque wrench in hand, explains the merits of the device, which allows one to tighten bolts tightly, but not too tight. The 6th graders get to work at their stations. The atmosphere is abuzz with activity. Durham is nearby to assist and to offer helpful advice.

At one station are David Ridley and Devin Johnson. They are moving their wrenches left to loosen and right to tighten.

Asked about the class, David says, “It’s cool. I really like that during this class that I can fix things.”

Devin Chimes in, “I think learning how to fix things helps with responsibility and the process of doing stuff.”

Whether the students actually find themselves working in, or perhaps owning, a bike shop some day is hard to predict. But the step-by-step processes they learn, the problem solving, and the sense of giving back is immeasurable.

“I feel like kids are sometimes underestimated, because kids can do good things and change people’s lives,” says David.

“I think it’s really cool that these bikes go to people who don’t have bikes,” adds Devin.

There’s also a science experiment, where Durham holds a front bike wheel in hand. The wheel has a modified axle in it, so you can grip it with both hands. The 6th graders take turns holding it as it spins rapidly. Durham explains the physics that helps bicyclists stay upright when they are riding. The hands-on demonstration is a hit with the students.

Second Chances

Durham is also among a circle of people in Central Florida who believe bikes can change lives for those down on their luck; people who don’t have a home, but still need basic transportation for jobs they’ve been able to find. Durham and others hold bike repair events, where folks who don’t have a home, but have a bike, can come and get theirs fixed. One of those is a bike repair event held roughly every three months at the Coalition for the Homeless in downtown Orlando, and has been since 2008. Covid interrupted some of the more recent events. Sometimes the bikes are beyond repair, or not safe. Durham says he usually brings 10-to-12 contingency bikes, ready to ride, to events like this.

“These are individuals that desperately need a bike,” says Durham. If the need is legit, he always has this in mind, if somebody’s bike is too far gone to fix and they need one of his bikes, “I’ll see what I can do for you at the end of the day.”

Some of those that come to his event are quite adept at bike repairs. All they needed were the parts, tools, some trust and encouragement.

Durham points to a guy named Skip, who was down on his luck and homeless, but demonstrated good bike and tool skills during one of the charity bike repair events. Durham bought a bag of tools and some parts and gave them to SALT Ministries. Now, Skip is giving back, doing daily repairs, as needed, at SALT in downtown Orlando.

Every Bike Donated and Repaired Goes Back into the Community

Bike/Walk Central Florida has worked with Rusty’s at the Coaltion for the Homeless Bike Repair Days and also at events giving kids in need bikes.

“For some children, this is their first bike, and they are so grateful to have it,” says Barbara Giles with BWCF. “Others have outgrown their bicycle and their families can’t afford to replace it.”

Rusty’s Bicycle Recycle repaired and donated many of the more than 500 bicycles that were given away to children attending the Jordan Smelski Foundation’s Holiday Sporting Goods Giveaway to families in need.

“It’s so heartwarming to see a child select a bicycle,” Giles said.

This holiday season there is a shortage of bicycles, and Rusty’s will need more bikes to meet the demand.

“If folks can donate unwanted bikes or bikes their children have outgrown, it could make all the difference in the world to another child or to someone who needs a bike for transportation to work,” said Giles.

Keep on Rollin’

Durham and other bike shop owners, and other local businesses, are committed in continuing their affiliations with charities to fill a transportation need in Central Florida. Repaired, rehabbed and refreshed bikes numbering into the thousands get recirculated every year. Durham says things have been a little tight on donations this year and says he could always use more used bikes. He also makes sure his bikes have lights and locks, equipment that has to be purchased.

“It costs money to give bikes away,” says Durham.

And Durham says, for many, a bike is more than a means of transportation. A bike is a lifeline, a new beginning; it’s a means to learning new skills, it’s a means to giving back.

Says Durham, “We’re changing lives, one bike at a time.”

How You Can Help

Got an old bike? Want to make a life changing difference? Bike/Walk Central Florida applauds the efforts of Rusty’s Bicycle Recycle. Here’s what you can do:

  • Bring an old bike to donate during Bike/Walk Central Florida’s Bike 5 Cities event Saturday, Oct 30, 2021, from 8 to noon.
    • Mead Gardens, Winter Park
    • Wirz Park, Casselberry
    • Maitland Community Park, Maitland
    • Eatonville Town Hall, Eatonville
    • Lake Druid Park, Orlando
    • Cady Way Pool Trailhead, Winter Park
  • Some David’s World Cycle locations take bike donations for Rusty’s Bicycle Recycle; contact David’s World Cycle for specific details, location and store policy
  • Contact Russ (Rusty) Durham at 407-729-1102 to arrange pick-ups; Rusty’s team is adding extra pick up service over weekends prior to the Bike 5 Cities event
  • If you choose a Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday to donate a bike, call or text Rowland at 407-951-3968 to arrange pick up.
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