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ATLANTA—Razor wire tops the fence that encircles the industrial building that houses the Beltline Bike Shop. Only a small yellow sign signals the shop’s existence on the edge of the Adair Park neighborhood in southwest Atlanta.
Inside, though, the vibe is vibrant. A small screen plays bike videos to a rap accompaniment. Grafitti-style bubble letters in yellow, orange, and purple spell out the shop name on one wall. Owner Tim O’Mara splits his attention between a man trying to pry a tire off a rim, and an elementary-school student named Justin examining donated bikes.
“Mr. Tim, I’m afraid about this one,” Justin says of a 20-inch bike with a loose chain: “A little kid riding it and goes too fast—it’ll pop off.” Justin wants to fix it and O’Mara tells him what tools he’ll need, then moves on to his next task. In the next half-hour O’Mara or his wife Becky circles back to Justin several times, checking to see how the repair is going, offering help where needed, and engaging him in conversation.
On a typical Saturday afternoon, that dynamic happens repeatedly with dozens of kids who come and learn how to fix bikes, experience the connection between hard work and rewards, and interact with adults who are good role models. The shop’s slogan: “Building community, one bike at a time.”
Beltline had its informal start in 2008 when the O’Maras moved to Adair Park, a neighborhood of inexpensive Craftsman-style bungalows and tall trees. Neighborhood problems with drugs, gangs, and litter did not deter them. Becky, now 31, worked in children’s ministry at a local church, and Tim, 41, owned a video production company. They wanted to be good neighbors but had no plan to “do ministry” in the neighborhood.
One day they were walking their dog in a park across the street from their house. They saw a girl they knew who owned a bike but wasn’t riding it because it had flat, worn-out tires. The O’Maras were casual bike riders and Tim was mechanically inclined, so they offered to help fix the bike if Brittany would do some chores around their house to pay for the new tires and tubes. After about three weeks, they said that was enough and would pick up the parts. It turned out, though, that a new bike cost just $10 more than the repairs. When they presented the new bike to Brittany, she “was over-the-moon excited,” Becky said: After that “every kid was our new friend.”
From their front porch overlooking the park, the O’Maras had watched young kids hanging out with older teens who were “making bad choices.” They saw an opportunity to build relationships naturally through bikes. They’d also noticed how neighborhood kids had an expectation of free things. “We weren’t going to have that,” Becky (now known as Ms. Becky) said. “That’s not how we grew up and we didn’t want to become that. We wanted to be a neighbor.” So they decided to find a way for kids to earn bikes.
The O’Maras began putting word out to families in the church where Becky worked: If you have bikes you’re outgrowing, we’d be glad to take them off your hands. As bikes came in, the O’Maras invited kids to earn them, but only after introducing themselves to the families. They gave kids chores to do. When they ran out of odd jobs at their house, they set kids to work picking up trash in the local park. Litter was such a problem, Becky said, that kids could walk around the block and easily fill up four large trash bags.
They learned that bikes fostered long-term relationships. Once kids owned bikes, they came to the O’Maras for help with flat tires and loose chains. Before long on Saturday mornings, Becky said, “our driveway looked like an old parts junk yard with 20-30 kids repairing their bikes or helping others.”
The O’Maras kept the bike program low-key, wanting to maintain natural, neighborly relationships with children. Before kids could earn a bike, the O’Maras tried to meet their parents or grandparents. If kids had to use a bathroom, the O’Maras sent them home to do it.
They saw benefits: The park was cleaner and more kids were outside riding bikes. Adults in the neighborhood took an interest in what the kids were doing and learned their names. Becky says the bikes became a way for neighbors to connect: “As we’re out and about, talking to our friends, we’re introducing them to kids. Most kids in the neighborhood know four to 10 adults they see on a regular basis.”
By 2010, the bike project had grown so much that the O’Maras converted it to a nonprofit and moved operations from their driveway to its present location. Beltline is officially open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays and has become Tim’s full-time job. So far, kids have earned 257 bikes, repaired 2,744, and picked up 830 bags of trash.
As Justin works on the bike with the loose chain, he explains what he’s doing: “I’m tightening the bolts on the bike so the bike will be able to go good.” When he thinks the chain is tight, Ms. Becky tells him to take it for a test drive. Justin hesitates: “If the front tire pops off, I’m going to be in big trouble.” Better check it again!
Across the room, Joe—several years older and able to handle more complicated repairs—puts his bike on a rack: “I need some brake pads and front brake pads.” From time to time, Mr. Tim comes by to see how Joe is doing and give instructions: “You can’t force it. OK, now pull it out.”
Donated bikes carry numbered stickers showing the value in stars of each bike. Stars are the shop currency. Each hour of work equals one star, and everything costs something. If a kid gets a flat tire and needs a patch, it costs either money or time. With stars, kids can buy new tires or tubes and extra stuff like locks, lights, and bells. So when kids like Justin or Joe come into the shop, they work to earn stars. They can also earn stars by picking up trash and helping neighbors.
Kids take their developing work ethics into the neighborhood. During spring break, the O’Maras noticed many 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds out looking for jobs—walking dogs, cleaning houses, digging ditches, digging gardens. Tim said it’s a “natural result of earning bikes.”
Outside the shop, some of the kids have chaotic lives. Inside, they operate by Bike Shop rules, which are posted on the wall: “I will not deceive, cheat, or steal. I will be kind and forgive others.
I will not tell false stories. I will respect my parents and tell them where I’m going. …”
Tim O’Mara explains the shop ethos: “They’re children. Somebody has to be the adult. I’m the adult. I draw a line. They need that, though. They need discipline. They need structure. When they have it, they thrive. That’s how the bike shop operates: It’s very strict and they operate well in it.”
Kids still come to the O’Maras’ house, but they don’t fix bikes on the porch anymore. Some of the long-term kids even get to go inside. That leads some kids on the fringe to ask, “Why can’t I come in?” Tim’s blunt answer: “I don’t know your momma. That’s it. Sorry.”
Over the past four years, the O’Maras have seen three kids deal with a parent’s death from drug abuse, violence, or disease. Those tragedies, Becky says, provide “a unique time to minister to the family, to talk about life after death, reliance on God in difficult times, and where healing comes from.”
They’ve also seen kids they know make heartbreaking choices. As neighbors, they try to make a difference. “Tim was made for a neighborhood like this and kids like this,” Becky says: “His abrasive, natural personality [suits] the boys in this area. They love him.”
Listen to a report on Beltline Bike Shop that aired on The World and Everything in It:
Follow this year’s Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition.
• 2012 contributions: $35,590
• 2012 expenses: $36,000
• Net assets at the end of 2012: $20,000 in cash, $5,000 in tools and supplies
• Tim O’Mara’s salary: $16,000
• Staff: Five regular volunteers
• 2013 budget: $56,000
• Website: beltlinebikeshop.org