Self-esteem, not just a bike, gets tune-up at Our Community Bikes

Image of pickup truck with bikes for PEDAL society
Got an old bike that's just clogging up the garage or the communal bike locker? Consider donating it to Vancouver's Our Community Bikes, which doesn't just fix old bikes - it plans to donate dozens of bikes in the next year to those who can't afford them.

Vancouver's PEDAL Society in the running for $10,000 Community Champions award

A unique Vancouver bike shop has turned Allan Wong's fear of trying to fix a bike into a preference for working on bikes over pedalling them. It's also turned him from a cyclist who would warily guard his bike from the suspicious dude walking by, to a volunteer bike mechanic who now understands just how much a bike – any bike – means to people who can't afford to buy one.

"People like us are gainfully employed and we have the luxury of having a car or bike," says Wong, who works in BC Hydro's properties department. "But I've seen firsthand the difference it makes when you give a bike to someone who has no means of transportation. It empowers them, enables them to get around. It's a step in the right direction for these people."

Wong is a volunteer board member with the PEDAL Society, one of 15 non-profits short-listed in the hunt for one of five $10,000 BC Hydro Community Champions conservation awards. Four years ago he was just a cyclist with a hurting foldable bike – a hand-me-down gift from a girlfriend who upgraded to a shiny new one – who had no idea how to repair it.

"I've got this bike and I'm thinking 'I don't even know how to unfold it, let alone fix it'," he recalls.

The next thing Wong knew, he was fixing hubs, wheels, bottom brackets, and headsets – thanks to the expert advice, ready availability of parts, and all the equipment he would ever need at Our Community Bikes on Main Street. After taking a few workshops at the store, he was challenged by staff to start volunteering to help fix bikes and train others.

And that's when things got really interesting.

"I see people from all walks of life there," he marvels. "I see former mayoral candidates in there rubbing elbows with folks from the downtown Eastside. There are people with physical, mental and emotional challenges there. And a lot of these people aren't there for help – they're there to help other people."

Some who get trained in bike maintenance at Our Community Bikes wind up working as bike mechanics, and go on to train others. It's just one of the many cool initiatives offered by the PEDAL Society, which recently expanded to a new space at 2429 Main Street near Broadway.

Image of a bike mechanic
Jesse Cooper, shop coordinator at Our Community Bikes, has been with the shop for a dozen years and is the guy to go to for advice on how to fix or maintain your bike.

'Geez, I'm not doing enough'

Wong became a volunteer PEDAL Society board member in no small part because of one particular experience he had working in the shop.

"I met this one fellow who had an adult tricycle, and I asked 'What's that all about?'", he recalls. "In talking to him you can see that he's a mentally challenged guy. So I say "What do you do with this thing?"

The guy floors Wong by telling him he uses the tricycle for one of his "home-based businesses": delivering food to elderly people.

"I was like 'Wow,", says Wong. "And then he's talking about how he rides in the Cure for Cancer… on this 70-pound tricycle. I got out of that thinking 'Gee, I'm just not doing enough."

Every day since public voting on nomination videos for the Community Champions began (voting ends Nov. 30), Wong goes online to vote again for The PEDAL Society. He says that if PEDAL can earn one of the five $10,000 prizes up for grabs, the money will in part go to buying helmets, locks, paying wages to those who will train a new group of about 40 volunteers and – ultimately, over the next year – the donation of 30 to 40 bikes to those who can't afford to buy them.

"A lot of these folks who are struggling, they're not unemployed – they're working two or three jobs and finding it hard to make ends meet," he says. "One little bit can make a huge difference."

Image of Allan Wong with his child
Allan Wong, who works with BC Hydro, shown here with his son Laelo during a 2014 trip to Berlin. Bikes, including the ones he uses on his trips to Europe, are a big part of his life.

Transit, bikes and cars a useful mix

Wong's work with BC Hydro involves sourcing and securing real estate, often for a variety of telecommunications initiatives – including mobile radio systems and microwave stations – across B.C. He blends a typical Vancouver mix of bike-transit-car share to meet his responsibilities, including dropping off his young son Laelo at daycare.

"We have three bike rooms downstairs at our Dunsmuir office in downtown Vancouver, and we have free access to shower facilities," says Wong, who can sometimes be spotted in the BC Hydro office elevator with a folded bike in hand. "We're also one of the biggest competitors in the Bike to Work challenge each year."

Speaking of competitors, Wong sends a message of good luck to two other cycling-focussed non-profits from Vancouver – HUB and Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST) – also in the running for Community Champions awards.

"At PEDAL, we have a long-time association with HUB – we've worked with them for years," says Wong. "I saw their [nomination] video and the woman in the video is a former director of PEDAL. So we're all very closely tied."

Vote today (and tomorrow if you like) for your favourite candidates from this year's Community Champions video nominations. And if you're a B.C. teacher or student, learn how classroom voting can put you in the running for a $1,000 award for a class project.

Learn more about Community Champions and see a full list of the 15 semi-finalists.