By Bill Mintz, Member of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston
Saied was a physician in Iran; now he’s starting a new life in Houston. Marvin is a Honduran immigrant and a student at Houston’s Wisdom High School. David, a veteran, left his life on the streets to live in supportive housing in Midtown Houston.
What they have in common is a new means of getting to work, school, classes, medical appointments and other destinations. All three received used bicycles donated by generous Houstonians and repaired by volunteers at Freewheels Houston, a ministry launched by Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston in 2015.
After providing bikes, helmets and other essential equipment to 250 people in 2019, Freewheels is looking for more volunteers to increase its ability to meet the transportation needs of refugees, immigrants and recently homeless veterans. Freewheels is not a volunteer project for everyone, but if you know bike repair or want to make a commitment to learn how to fix bikes, you will find people who like the work, enjoy sharing their knowledge and are fulfilled by the opportunity to serve their neighbors.
Freewheels is located in a warehouse at 6020 Jessamine #204 in the Gulfton neighborhood in Southwest Houston. Volunteer workdays are held on Friday and Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon and Mondays from 3:30 – 6:30 p.m.
Experienced volunteers welcome newcomers and help them learn their way around a bike. Your first shift may involve dismantling a bike that’s not cost-effective to repair. There are usually parts that can be reclaimed and used on another repair job. With every shift, your knowledge will grow. If you already know bike repair, Freewheels will put you to work right away.
On many days, people will drive up with bikes that have been sitting, unused, in their garage. They have decided that they want their bikes to have another chapter.
The same day, a veteran may arrive from the hourlong trip by bus and foot to get a bike. After making sure the bike fits, they ride off, wearing a helmet and carrying a sturdy lock.
About once a month, volunteers load up a dozen bikes to distribute at Margaret Wisdom High School, the HISD school formerly known as Robert E. Lee High School, where 60 percent of the students are refugees or immigrants.
In February, Marvin, the Honduran student, didn’t stick around to talk after getting his bike because he had to get to work at his after-school job at a clinic. Another student, Parwana, from Afghanistan, asked for a Freewheels bike after her sister got one last semester.
Although the refugee resettlement program has been cut drastically by the Trump administration, some are arriving.
Saeid, arriving at Freewheels with his case manager with Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, recounted for Freewheels volunteers the harrowing story of his escape from Iran. After three trips to prison and torture, he fled to Turkey, where he started the process for refugee resettlement. Three years ago, he thought he was headed for the United States when the newly inaugurated Trump administration suspended resettlement from several nations, including Iran.
He finally arrived in Houston in December with few resources and limited English language skills that will be necessary if he is going to use his medical training. He’s a strong rider and the bike he received at Freewheels makes it easier to attend English language classes.
David, the veteran, is working hard to rebuild his life. He’s got a job on a construction project that’s a 45-minute walk from his new apartment. He was referred to Freewheels by a case manager at nonprofit agency USVets. (Everyone who gets a bike from Freewheels has been referred by a professional—usually a case manager or a teacher.)
Volunteer Bruce Clark recalled the bike that was given to David had been a challenge for Freewheels volunteers. “By the time we gave it away, it was a jumble of new and salvaged bike parts—a Frankenbike,” he said. “The more we worked on it, the more repairs it needed. After putting so much work into it, we could not give up on it. During four weekends, at least three volunteers took turns to make this bicycle functional and safe.”
Bruce is like many Freewheels volunteers: Last summer, he came to donate a bike, asked a lot of questions about the program and became a regular. He’s known for his attention to detail and willingness to share what he knows. Like many of our volunteers, Bruce is not a member of a Lutheran congregation; we draw people from across the community—retired people, engineers, teachers, students and many others.
Are you interested in helping? There’s lots of information at https://freewheelshouston.org/volunteer. You may also sign up for a weekly volunteer update email.