VERGENNES — What’s a more quintessential Vermont childhood experience than riding a bicycle in the summertime? Yet for more than 1,000 children within the state’s foster care system, having a bike of their own may not be the norm.
That’s why local used bike shop in Vergennes, Little City Cycles, founded Green Mountain Foster Bikes, a volunteer run non-profit program that refurbishes discarded bicycles and donates them to foster kids.
“I can’t help these kids with their problems, but I can give them a bike,” said Tim Mathewson, owner of Little City Cycles and co-founder of Green Mountain Foster Bikes. “Because every time they ride a bike, they’ll feel better.”
Mathewson and project partner Tanya Bashaw, a Burlington cyclist, turn run-of-the- mill department store bikes, which often are discarded when parts break or children outgrow them, into maintenance-free riding machines that will last.
“They may not be the fanciest bikes in the world but they’ll ride forever,” Bashaw said. “To give that freedom to a 16- or 17-year-old is a wonderful thing.”
In order to have fewer moving parts at risk of malfunctioning, each Green Mountain Foster bike is rebuilt as a single speed with foot brakes. All ball bearings on the bikes are re-greased and every part of the bike, from handle bar tape and seats to paint, is retouched or replaced.
Each kid also receives a brand new helmet, an air pump, and oil for the chain of their new bike.
“It gives the kid a mechanical ownership of the bike,” Mathewson said. “When they put their hand on it for the first time, it’s theirs.”
Pamela Piper, Foster Kin Care manager at the Vermont Department for Children and Families’, connects the bike program with foster families. She said that the program helps provide as sense of normalcy to each child.
“What’s better than riding a bicycle, getting outside and the freedom inherent with that?” Piper said. “These are all of Vermont’s kids, not just DCF kids. Green Mountain Foster Bikes is stepping up and saying, ‘every kid deserves a bike.’
According to Piper, as of December 2016 there were approximately 1,200 children in foster care in Vermont. Stipends for foster parents range from $18 to $30 per day for a child, which doesn’t leave much money for extras.
“Our foster parents are very generous and some will do that [buy a bike], but there’s not extra money,” she said.
With the help of volunteers last year, Bashaw and Mathewson were able to rebuild 10 bikes and donate each one to a Vermont foster child in need. In June, Green Mountain Foster Bikes became a recognized 501(c)3 nonprofit. They currently have 22 bicycles rebuilt and ready to be donated.
Now, Piper works to find out which kids need a bike and then providing the foster bike program with measurements of the youth’s inseam and height, so a match can be made. In the future she said she hopes for the program to be known more widely by foster parents, so they can connect directly to the organization.
Bashaw and Mathewson also have eyes toward the future. Their goal is for the program to eventually pay for itself through grants and donations. In the meantime they use crowd funding to help with costs for labor, parts and accessories, but a lot of the expense comes out of their own pockets.
The team is also working with other bike shops across the state to serve as many children as possible in need of bicycles, and hope that the Green Mountain Foster Bike program will be replicated in communities across the nation.
“First we’re going to meet the needs of all foster kids,” Mathewson said.