Students of the Wheel – After School Program Teaching So Much More than Bike Mechanics

Excelsior’s After School Program Blends Vocational Skills with Self-Development and Community Service

Teaching youth vocational skills can prepare them to navigate the “real world” successfully. Encouraging positive self-expression and developing their self-confidence can help them realize their dreams and achieve great success. Inspiring empathy through giving back teaches our kids to contribute to their communities and fulfill an even greater purpose.

This is just a sampling of what youth learn in Excelsior’s Students of the Wheel (SOTW) program. While learning valuable vocational skills, youth instructor-stevedevelop important qualities that enhance their own lives while making a positive impact in the lives of others.

The following story is about one of those lives – a man named Tom* who had the resolve to change his life, but lacked the resources. SOTW was able to give Tom the help he needed to get back on his feet. This is a true story about the power of community and the ripple effect that improving one life can have on so many others.

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A Man and His Bicycle

After many years of enjoying a successful career as a world-class pipe bender, Tom’s life began to change. Everything seemed to be getting harder and Tom felt himself spinning out of control. He felt himself crashing again and again, until one day he crashed so hard that he couldn’t get back up. Tom was so entrenched in addiction that he had lost his career, his relationships, his home, and his dignity.

Fortunately Tom recognized he had a problem and committed himself to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. After completing his 30 days successfully, Tom left rehab with an intense commitment to sobriety and to changing his life. His first step was to get a job so he could get off the streets. Even though his only resources were the clothes on his back, $60 in his pocket and a bicycle, he resolutely pursued job opportunities. Tom biked miles every day in search of anything that could get him back on his feet.

Then one day, Tom’s bike broke. Without enough money for repairs, Tom now had no transportation, and still no job. He felt hopeless; ready to give up, but not yet willing to admit defeat. That’s when he heard about Excelsior’s Students of the Wheel (SOTW) programinstructor-and-student3 where at-risk youth learn and apply mechanic skills to fix broken bikes.

Tom felt a strong connection with these youth – they were all working hard to overcome challenges and create a better life – and he thought they may be able to help each other. So Tom offered SOTW his last $60 to repair his bike. The youth in the program were happy to help of course, but refused his donation knowing he needed that money much more than they did.

Excelsior’s Students of the Wheel Program

Excelsior’s SOTW program is a weekly after school program that takes place every Thursday at Excelsior’s Community Center on South Broadway. A formally trained bike mechanic and former Excelsior employee, Steve Drugan, teaches participants to service and repair bicycles. But these vocational skills are perhaps the least important things that youth learn in this program.

studentEngaging kids in this type of after school program provides a constructive outlet through which they can express themselves positively and recognize their own self-worth. As they learn new things and apply them successfully, they discover passion and purpose while gaining self-confidence; and when they make mistakes, they learn from them, building resiliency as they recognize mistakes are part of the process. Still, perhaps the most important thing they learn in SOTW is empathy and the importance of giving back. After all, SOTW’s original purpose was to repair bikes to be donated to children’s charities.

Back to Tom

With his newly repaired bicycle, Tom continued his job search, finally securing a full-time job at a car repair shop. Last we spoke with him, it was six months after rehab and Tom was still sober and had been gainfully employed for one month. We are so proud of all he has accomplished.

Tom is an inspiration in himself, but perhaps the most inspiring thing was how his experience resonated with Excelsior’s youth. Witnessing Tom’s persistence and strength in changing his own life gave them hope and motivation to change their lives.

Plus, knowing they had contributed to Tom’s transformation and success led them to realize that SOTW could benefit so many more lives than the children they were already helping. They realized they could fulfill a crucial need for people by providing transportation to those without it. So this is what they did. SOTW’s next project was repairing a bike to donate to a single mother without access or money for transportation. She was absolutely speechless when they presented her with this unexpected and much-needed gift.

That’s one more life changed through the positive ripple effect this program produces.

The Future of SOTW

instructor-and-studentWhen Tom picked up his bike, he contributed half of his money, $30, to the program. SOTW participants again refused, but Tom insisted; he wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was Tom’s generosity and fierce desire to contribute regardless of his circumstances that led SOTW to another important realization – accepting donations for their work could make SOTW a self-sustaining program.

You see SOTW was born thanks to the generosity of Bank of America and Xcel Energy Foundation who awarded Excelsior with grants to fund vocational programs and workforce development. Thanks to this financial springboard, SOTW got its start, but with individual contributions SOTW can persist indefinitely, meaning they can continue offering free bike repairs and bike donations to those in need.

Excelsior would like to extend a HUGE thanks to all the individuals and organizations that make Students of the Wheel possible – Bank of America and Xcel Energy Colorado for their generous grants, Steve Drugan for volunteering his time to instruct our youth, and Mitch Zerobnick with Maid in the Shade Services LLP for the incredibly generous donation of 17 bikes for our youth to work on.

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