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The History Of Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg

Ross Willard, founder of Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg, is best known for fixing and teaching

Our Modest Beginning: Years 2001 to 2005

One afternoon in 2001, Ross Willard, our founder, and some other volunteers were feeding disadvantaged people at a park on Emerald Street in Harrisburg. Ross noticed that most of the bikes that the kids in the neighborhood were riding did not have working brakes and decided that it was a dangerous situation that needed to be addressed.

Street Corner Bike Shop – Initially, he started by repairing bicycles on Harrisburg street corners, and at block parties and multicultural festivals. At this point, he was working out of his personal car with a small tool bag in the backseat. Gradually the tool bag grew to become a toolbox and the family car became a van to hold more bike parts. As the word spread, more and more residents looked for Ross around the city to get their bikes repaired.

Recruiting More Volunteers – Ross quickly realized that there was far more demand than he could service by himself. He recruited a handful of volunteers to help repair bikes and make them safe for the owners. These volunteers – retirees, bicycle riders and bicycle mechanics – quickly became consistently involved, and became the critical core supporters of Ross’ efforts.

Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg began with street and block party bicycle repairs.

The Vision Develops: 2006

At a League of American Bicyclists Safety Conference in New York City, Ross realized that he needed to have a bicycle repair shop and storage facility for donated bicycles in order to serve the local community. Until 2007, the storage facility for all the bikes was Ross’ home: the basement, the garage, and in the yard! He also realized that there should be a name for the operation: Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg (RBH) was chosen.

The name Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg becomes known through the area.

Our First Shop & A Mission Emerges: 2007

The first dedicated indoor space for Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg was a 3,000 sq. ft. basement made available by the Victory Outreach Center at 12th and Magnolia Streets in Harrisburg. Now there was a shop location to work out of, all of the bikes and parts could be cleared out of Ross’ home and backyard (much to his wife’s delight). RBH continued to operate their mobile repair at street fairs and other events.

Teach Someone How To Repair Their Bike – During 2007, a friend who worked at a halfway house mentioned to Ross that the residents had no means of reliable transportation, which hampered their successful transition into society. During this conversation, an idea was born that would help shape the future of Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg. The idea was to provide each resident of the halfway house with a reliable, safe bike for $20. The bikes provided by RBH were guaranteed to work for the duration of the summer. The proceeds quickly went to buy more tires, tubes, chains, cables, so that more bikes could be readied for service.

Providing bikes to residents of the halfway house provided valuable lessons for the RBH. Realizing that volunteers were spending many evenings at the halfway house repairing the “guaranteed” bikes, continuing to maintain them became a challenge. Some owners were careless; other simply did not have the knowledge or skills needed to make repairs. It became obvious that simply providing safe bikes was not the answer.

Earn-A-Bike Is Born – New bike owners had to learn how to do the repairs themselves, to become self-sufficient. Out of this realization, the Earn-A-Bike program was created. Anyone who needed a bike could earn one by investing two hours of labor to make the bike a safe, reliable form of transportation. Children could get a bike by having a guardian invest two hours in bike repair or shop “sweat equity.” An added benefit of this program was that the new owner now had a stake in taking care of the bike. They now earned the bicycle and received it at no cost.

At the end of 2007, RBH lost their first bike shop location when the Victory Outreach Center building was condemned by the City of Harrisburg. The congregation left and RBH began searching for a new home.

Ross Willard teaches bike repair so people can Earn-A-Bike.

Recycle Bicycle Temporary Shop #2: 2008

The RBH operation soon moved into loaned attic space at the Capital City Church on 18th and Chestnut Streets in Harrisburg. While this 1,000 sq. ft. temporary facility was useful, it simply did not meet the growing need for additional repair and storage space.

Early days at the Elder Street location (that is no longer our phone number!)

Recycle Bicycle Shop #3: RBH Expands 2009 – 2014

A careful search of the Harrisburg area revealed a large vacant building on Elder Street. This 5,000 square foot brick warehouse (formerly a sausage factory with cold storage built in the late 1800s), was certainly big enough to house RBH’s large inventory of used and donated bicycles and parts. RBH leased this property from corporate owner G.R. Sponaugle, for the charitable sum of $1.00 per year.

This building had extensive storage, two loading docks, cork-lined (formerly refrigerated) rooms and plenty of space – and became fondly known as “the warehouse.” Unfortunately, the warehouse had no electricity, running water, bathrooms, or HVAC. To help improve the facility, volunteers installed basic electricity, lighting and a few outlets at their own expense.

Scores of part-time and full-time volunteers rehabilitated the space to make it more useful for RBH’s purpose. They created places for multiple bike repair stations with tools and bike repair stands; a dedicated space for two hour bikes (which could be fixed for use); a tire and wheel room; a good bikes room; a specially built parts room; spaces for metal and rubber recycling, plus a warm room with lighting and temporary heating for winter projects.

There was plenty of activity at Elder Street.

Safety First Is Still The Mission – RBH flourished and grew at the warehouse location. During the summers there would be long lines of people who needed bike repairs or were looking to get a bike. Volunteers and friends arrived with van and box-truck loads of abandoned bicycles for donation. No matter how busy it got Ross and his core volunteers never wavered from the main point of the mission – safe bikes. Before any bicycle went out of the shop both front and rear brakes had to be in good operating condition. Safety always came first. After the brake checks, other repairs could be made.

Lock & Register Your Bike – In 2009 our founder attended a BikeBike conference in Pittsburgh. BikeBike is an international group of non-profit bike shops. Many non-profit bike shops saw the same problem that RBH had: theft. Many of the bikes provided to the community were stolen once they left our shop. The same owners kept coming back wanting another bike. RBH’s Bicycle Lock Program rapidly came into being. Cable locks were purchased at cost from a local bike shop and turned around at cost to anyone who did not have a locking system. No adult bike ever leaves RBH unless it has a lock.

The Harrisburg City Police also knew that there was a bicycle theft problem in the city. They decided to start a program to register bicycles and put a registration decal on each bike that they registered. However, the program soon lost momentum due to budget and manpower shortages. RBH came to the rescue and became the official bicycle registration station for the city. Harrisburg and many other local municipal police departments now donate all the unclaimed stolen bikes they collect to RBH for recycling them back to the community. In addition the registration program is starting to bear fruit as several stolen bikes have been returned to the owners through the registration information on file.

Ross and volunteers helped Messiah College start their student-run bike shop.

Collaborating With The Community – During these years RBH expanded its partnerships in new and unexpected ways. In 2009, RBH was the inspiration for the creation of Williamsport Recycle Bicycle. RBH was instrumental in encouraging and supplying Williamsport with bikes and parts. In 2011, RBH helped develop the Handlebar, a nonprofit student-run bike shop at Dickinson College. RBH has supplied the Handlebar and the spinoff Dickinson Cycling Club with hundreds of bicycles for students and box upon box of used and new parts. In 2011, RBH partnered with yet another non-profit student-operated bicycle shop at nearby Messiah College. In 2014, the Common Wheel, non-profit bike repair shop was created with RBH’s assistance in Lancaster. In 2015, RBH was helpful in assisting two more non-profit bicycle shops, Life Cycle Carlisle and Lebanon County Mission and Lebanon County Pedals For Progress. And in 2017 RBH assisted Brandt Kingsley as he started Pedal 4 Peace in York, a diverse group of riders that believe through biking and bike oriented activities we can break down the barriers of urban relations and help combat violence in urban communities.

Atlas Street location 2014 before we moved in.

Bike Shop #4: 2014-2019

In summer 2014, RBH was once again homeless: the landowner sold “The Warehouse” on Elder St. After a frantic search RBH moved into another empty 5,000 square foot building at 2266 Atlas St. Harrisburg. Formerly a 1920’s vehicle maintenance shop, and later furniture storage facility, this new “Warehouse” also had no electricity, running water, bathrooms, or HVAC. Once again volunteers installed basic electricity with lighting and a few outlets. During a frantic Labor Day weekend they moved hundreds of bikes, storage units, parts and tools to their new home.

History Page
Atlas Street location after some renovations.

RBH has continued to grow in this new neighborhood. Dozens of volunteers continue the mission to give away bicycles to the needy and deserving, train new owners to maintain their bikes, and safely ride their bikes. In 2015 a new “safety vest program” began. Now everyone who gets a bike at RBH also gets a fluorescent safety vest for free.

The RBH logo was noticeable throughout the community.

Making Our Mission Permanent: 2016-2017

It’s Official – RBH was formally incorporated in early 2016 as a 501(c)(3), IRS designated non-profit charitable organization by its Board of Directors. To create a permanent home for the organization with adequate space and facilities, a capital campaign was initiated to raise funds to purchase and renovate a building in Harrisburg and to create a stable base of funding for continuing service and outreach into the future. By the end of the year some $80,000 was in our Campaign account making us slightly over halfway to our $150,000 goal. Our first Annual Report was produced, and we purchased and rolled out a website.

The warehouse was very busy during the year. Hundreds of lightly and heavily used, unneeded, and unwanted bicycles were donated to us. As a result we were able to give away more than 1,500 individual bikes during the year, plus we gave way over 600 children’s bikes for Christmas through a variety of charities, organizations, schools and churches. While it’s really difficult to estimate, volunteers in the warehouse and working during neighborhood block parties and other outreach events fixed as many as 2,500 bikes!

Atlas Street was busy, volunteers worked outside the building because there wasn’t enough room inside.

During 2017, RBH witnessed a number of exciting developments. A Stakeholders Group – an advisory committee to the Board of Directors – was formed and met nearly every month to discuss new outreach opportunities, new potential partnerships, and to deal with the everyday management of a volunteer bike shop. The Stakeholders were instrumental in upgrading RBH’s brand identity and creating a presence on social media. This was key to promoting fundraising for our Capital Campaign. The Campaign fund at year-end totaled some $102,000!

The fundraising committee of the Stakeholders engaged a new volunteer to focus on writing grant proposals to foundations and corporate donors. The first effort was rewarded with a $2,500 grant from the Josiah and Bessie Kline Foundation to initiate a bike helmet give-away program. Now kids getting free bikes all get free helmets as well!

Trailers and trucks transport bicycles to and from RBH many times during a year.

The activities at the Warehouse were just as eventful. We helped an African volunteer send his first shipping container-load of 190 bicycles, plus parts and tires to the poor in Liberia in western Africa. Plus we gave away hundreds of bikes to local schools in Harrisburg, York, Lancaster and Philadelphia, to local organizations like In the Light in Harrisburg and Camden, NJ, and to educational institutions like Dickinson College’s Handlebar. Some bikes that could not be repaired were even sent to Maryland to be turned into bike art. Our outreach to local neighborhoods for bike repair and bike rodeo events and events sponsored by the City of Harrisburg kept our volunteers extra-busy during the year.

And again – we became homeless in mid-September 2019! The facility served us reasonably well since fall 2014, but now we need a bigger space! With money in the bank, a search for a permanent home became priority one.

Bike Shop #5: We Found A Place To Call Home October 2019

new RBH 2019
RBH finally purchases a permanent home thanks to our many donors.

1722 Chestnut Street Purchased October 2019 – In September 2019, our previous borrowed location on Atlas Street was sold in a tax sale so we had to move. This move-out was our last one!  Our Directors closed on the purchase in early October of an older 9,000 sq. ft. warehouse at 1722 Chestnut Street in Harrisburg. This space is in an ideal location and will allow us to grow.

We took ownership of 1722 Chestnut St. on October 8, 2019. Our first task was to repair the main 80-year-old roof that had been leaking for years. Demolition of the front room, old bathrooms and storage areas began immediately. Mold was present in all these places and after demo we received professional mold remediation. Many dumpsters were filled and hauled away. The roof was repaired before the end of the year.

Demolition of the front room was started immediately after taking ownership.

As 2020 began the all volunteer crew and volunteer professionals began to tackle redoing the electrical for the entire building, plumbing for the ADA bathrooms and framing for the front room. Then early 2020 saw a shutdown due to the coronavirus. After weeks of closure, bicycle shops in Pennsylvania were declared essential businesses. We were cautiously and safely back in business getting people on bicycles and getting them to work or out for exercise. Our mission continued throughout this unprecedented year.

Renovations continued on the building too. We completed the ADA bathrooms, LED lighting throughout the building, new exit doors, including an ADA front door. Our front room received the biggest makeover with new drywall, paint, a drop ceiling and beautiful custom wainscoting built by one of our volunteers from recycled roof wood. The warehouse got organized too. Donations of mobile shelf units from Amazon have helped us sort parts and maintain a positive workflow. We have many workstations for volunteers to safely help clients repair or build a bicycle.

In October of 2020 we received our Certificate of Occupancy from the City of Harrisburg and are officially in business, albeit a unique way of doing business during a pandemic. As 2021 begins we continue to improve the warehouse with plans for upgrades. We are on the list to receive a mural on the exterior of our building during the Sprocket Mural Works 2021 Harrisburg Mural Fest. RBH will continue to grow as a community partner. We will continue to improve our warehouse. We will be looking to offer new programs and teach bicycle safety. And we will continue to offer opportunities for volunteer hours and teaching bicycle maintenance to everyone. We thank everyone who has been with us on this journey; the donors, the volunteers, the city, and the community.

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