Note: The Boise Bicycle Project is looking for donations for its Dec. 15 Christmas bike giveaway, so this is a chance for me to share the story I wrote last year about the project and the giveaway. To find out how you can help, click here. -- Bill Manny
Wyatt Laird and Sidney Goodman wheeled their new bicycles out of the Boise Bicycle Project and into the bright sunshine Dec. 16, shepherded by a tall “bike buddy” in a Boise police uniform: Chief Bill Bones.
“We were crossing our fingers, hoping we could get him to work with us,” said the boys’ mother, Samantha Healy. “It’s really cool that we could have someone as neat as him.”
Wyatt and Sidney were two of about 400 children signed up for bikes through 2017 BBP’s Christmas giveaway. Healy connected to the project through the Boys and Girls Club. “Everybody is absolutely amazing,” she said. “Not a lot of us can afford new bikes.”
The giveaway’s joyful chaos was powered by 270 people who volunteered as buddies, mechanics, photographers, bike-schleppers, safety instructors, helmet-fitters, logistics coordinators, food donors, goodie servers, foreign-language interpreters and more.
Spanish-language interpreter Wendy King lost count of the number of families she helped Saturday: “It’s just giving so many kids, so many families a great Christmas.”
The 2017 giveaway brought to 12,000 the number of donated bikes the project has repaired in its first 10 years, with nearly 6,000 donated at monthly and annual giveaways. The Christmas event highlights all the elements BBP has spent the decade connecting in Boise — bike groups, highway commissioners, other nonprofits, families that need a little help, prison inmates, legislators, local businesses, refugees getting their first bicycles, police officers, language interpreters, and hundreds and hundreds of bike-loving volunteers who give money, bikes, time, skills and good will.
“I love bikes and I love kids,” said volunteer Steve Kramer, who fixed up five bikes for the giveaway. “It’s good to put a smile on their face.”
“They have a model that involves everybody. It’s everything you want in a community service organization,” said Maryanne Jordan, a city councilwoman and a state senator, and a volunteer. “It’s a community service organization disguised as a bike shop.”
IN THE BEGINNING
The Boise Bicycle Project creation story starts in the smoky forests of Idaho: Jimmy Hallyburton and Brian Anderson (now the Sawtooth National Recreation Area ranger) were wildland firefighters with the Idaho City Hotshots. They’d worked in bike shops and dreamed of a co-op where they could fix bikes and do good. They started in 2007 in donated space in the former Rescue Mission at Sixth and Front streets. They read “Nonprofits for Dummies,” got $5,000 from REI, and enlisted friends and family. And they sold their first bikes out of Bittercreek Alehouse.
In 2009, BBP relocated to Lusk Street and Hallyburton quit firefighting to be a full-time bike mechanic and evangelist. In 2011, BBP bought its building, and it raised $280,000 in 2016 to renovate it. This year, the project has 15 paid staff and a budget of $354,000.
The revenue model was simple: Fix and sell bikes – three a day in the beginning. “The first bicycle would pay for (the mechanics’) own salary, the second bicycle would pay for the building expense, and the third bicycle was basically money we could invest into our program,” said Hallyburton. “And the bikes were coming in faster than we could fix them up.”
The project was always going to be about more than bicycles. But nobody could foresee just how much more.
“We knew when we started the shop, we wanted it to be this place where it didn’t matter where you were from, what your background was, experience level, age, anything like that, you could walk into our shop and be welcome and share the space,” Hallyburton said. “But I don’t know we envisioned how much we would learn from each other by sharing that space.”
It still looks like a bike shop, with bike stands and parts and refurbished bikes for sale. It has a do-it-yourself repair bay where you can use tools and ask questions. But it’s called a project for a reason: Its founders set a goal of making Boise the bike capital of America, advocating safety and bike-oriented infrastructure, as well as the barrier-breaking power of the bike. At 10 years old, BBP has become a kind of glue connecting people and agencies that work with bikes, transportation, refugees and schoolchildren.
All by tapping into the elemental joy of being a kid, little or big, on a bike.
“We’re using the tangible things we do here – the broken bicycle, the volunteer fixing it, the happy kid getting the bike – as ways to tell a bigger story about what the needs in our community are,” Hallyburton said.
Boise police bicycle officer Blake Slater is a fan. Lots of people know about the Christmas giveaway. But Slater said no one does better at reaching adults with bike information and training – be they new-to-bicycling refugees or people getting out of prison. BBP is the “hub” where the spokes of Boise’s disparate bike agencies and advocates meet.
“Kudos to them for creating an environment where other people are willing work with them,” said Slater. “They’re not proprietary. All they want is one simple (thing): More people on bikes.”
‘IT’S THE MISSION’
Talk to a volunteer or a board member, and each one goes immediately to “the mission.”
“I love it here. I love the philosophy,” said Paula Davis, who has volunteered since that first Christmas giveaway. “I love the outreach. Outreach to women in prison. Outreach to kids. Outreach to refugees.
“I have seen how it opens the world up for a kid. There’s a lot of freedom – whether you’re 4 or 69 like me.”
“Transportation equity,” said Clancy Anderson, a longtime volunteer and Boise bike advocate.
“Affordable bikes, affordable transportation,” said BBP board member Mark Strom, a firefighter who works in Nampa. “We demystify it. Anybody who has the desire to fix their own bike is welcome here. Everybody is welcome here.”
That’s exactly the experience Megan Skinner had. She’s an AmeriCorps volunteer without a car from Grand Rapids, Mich., working with the Women’s and Children’s Alliance. She got a bike but was intimidated about maintaining it.
She immediately connected with BBP and bike mechanic Camille Jackson. “I’m 24 and they empowered me,” she said. “I’ve learned so much here I never thought I could.”
Hallyburton would say that’s intentional. The project is making an effort to get more young, female and refugee volunteers in the pipeline. That’s potential employment for them, and for visitors to the shop it’s seeing themselves reflected in the staff and volunteers.
“When we have a female mechanic on the floor, it makes it so when another person comes into the shop, they think, ‘I could do that.’ Or when someone from the refugee community comes in they say, ‘Oh, this is a place where I am supposed to be. There’s actually a paid mechanic who speaks my language or understands the situation I’ve been through,’ ” he said.
Marinda Hollar, a Boise State junior from Camas, Wash., got involved through her nonprofit management class. A handful of students chose a class project working with refugees on cycling and BBP services, which included raffling off a BBP bike, through bike bingo and other activities, to a thrilled 16-year-old girl from the Congo.
“The Boise Bike Project is deeper than just getting bikes to people. It’s community development,” said Hollar. “The fact they’re reaching out to students and letting us take on side projects that help further their mission in the community (shows) that they are very responsive.”
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
There wasn’t much around BBP when it moved in 2009 to its Lusk Street warehouse, a nondescript block west of Capitol Boulevard. But that was about to change.
The recession was getting people interested in cheap transportation and the repair-it-yourself ethic. Real estate was priced right, so BBP could soon buy its building. Nearby Boise State was bursting out. And Boise and bicycling were being discovered.
Today, BBP’s next-door neighbors are a new dog kennel and a new Dawson’s coffee shop. The immediate neighborhood has a brewery and a pub, and towering new student apartments. That’s made parking your car difficult, but that’s just another reason to ride your bike to the shop.
Councilwoman Jordan says BBP was ground zero in the neighborhood’s cultural explosion, as well as Boise’s bike boom.
“We definitely feel lucky. We really did hit the jackpot here,” said Hallyburton. “But when we started we also sort of knew it was a jackpot idea. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on, but Boise hadn’t fully established its identity and we knew we had an opportunity to move fast and establish bicycling as part of that identity.”
Lucky and dumb, Hallyburton says. But even the dumb part turned out to be lucky — because it forced them to ask for help.
“We knew vaguely how to run a bike shop, but we knew nothing about nonprofits. So we really have relied on other people’s expertise,” he said. “That innovation and iteration has just been part of our history. … Those people coming into our shop may be wrenching on bikes, but they’re lawyers or engineers or different (backgrounds), and we try to tap into those skills.”
WHAT’S AHEAD FOR BBP?
Hallyburton, 35, is a larger-than-life presence, with his aw-shucks charisma, beefy firefighter frame and ever-present bandanna around his neck. He’s a natural salesman and storyteller. He considered using his knack for communicating to become a professional fire videographer, after doing movies for his fire crew. His BBP videos, emails, newsletters and Facebook posts are personal, heartfelt and inspiring. He co-hosts a podcast that examines the challenges of learning to run a nonprofit. Earlier this year he presented a Boise TEDx talk and video about the “limitless possibilities” of what he dubbed bicycling’s “speed of discovery.” His response to a bad Yelp review is a tutorial on how to handle criticism.
The project and Hallyburton are so closely identified that Hallyburton knows he needs to make sure to share the praise and the burdens. He also knows he needs to plan for the future, for succession against the day he’s no longer around.
“Jimmy is just kind of a force of nature,” said Jordan. “He’s taken something that started off as a dream and made it a reality. Jimmy’s biggest strength is to do things and make sure everybody feels they are important. It’s about the mission and the kids and what they can accomplish as a team.”
So what’s ahead for BBP? Jump-starting what Hallyburton says is stalled progress in accommodating Boise’s growing bicycling culture: “We need the infrastructure to keep that momentum going.” BBP also would like to help people start their own bike co-ops, perhaps in Nampa, as it helped the Payette River Bicycle Movement get going in McCall.
And now that the project has spruced up its Lusk Street space, BBP wants to move the focus away from the shop, to the Boise neighborhoods where its clients live and ride: more diverse neighborhood bike rides, more mobile bike repair visits, more community awareness, more bike lanes, more safety.
“Introducing more of our community to these different areas that maybe you don’t know about,” he said. “Start to understand how big of a barrier it is for somebody to cross Overland or Vista, to get to school or get to the business they want to get to. And to realize there are kids and adults doing that every single day and we don’t even think about it.”
At its bike giveaways, BBP puts kids on a bike and in a helmet and gives them a safe-riding class. “We’re saying, ‘OK, go out there and have fun now.’ I think the next step is to (ask) ‘Where are you riding?’ Because we need to make sure we’re making those places safe to ride,” Hallyburton said.
Anderson, the volunteer and transportation activist, likes BBP’s advocacy for bike-friendly infrastructure. It’s hard, he said, for many kids to even ride to BBP on safe routes. “Those kids up on the Bench don’t always have that,” said Anderson. “The real drive right now is to figure out how to reach out to the community, not for the community to come to (BBP).”
The challenge will be to bring the rest of us along on the ride.
Bill Manny is a longtime Statesman writer and editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter/Instagram @whmanny.