On a Wednesday evening in late August, the forecast includes a tornado warning. Of all the things I’ve learned to expect in Toronto, a tornado is not one of them. Leaving the house at dusk with Miss J, I cycle east along a dreary and very windy Eglinton Avenue West, but the road is at least dry. Lenni Eubanks asked me to meet her at a coffee shop near Avenue Road. I lock up against a pole and once inside, I seat myself at a window so I can watch my bike and the weather, apprenhensive.
Most of the sentences in our email correspondence ended with an exclamation mark, so I know to expect bouncy. I didn’t know to expect a woman though, and one with a spontaneous and thoroughly outgoing personality.
“So,” I begin, both of us grinning because we’re here to discuss bikes. “I discovered you through my Twitter account.”
“Yes,” Lenni says. “I’m the founder of My First Wheels, an organization devoted to matching gently used bikes with children in vulnerable neighbourhoods. I never expected to start a charity: I just wanted to give every child the chance to ride.”
This mission reflects Lenni’s personal bike story. “I grew up in a rough neighbourhood,” says Lenni, “where there was no money for groceries, no entertainment apart from the television, gang violence, guns, prostitution—the whole nine yards.” Down the street, one child owned a bike. Lenni remembers it vividly as being brown and orange. “I was insanely jealous,” she confides.
One afternoon, Lenni was given a junk-yard bike. “It was rusty, crooked, with a banana seat,” she tells me. “I was over-the-moon elated.”
“I suppose a bike would be quite a luxury!” I say and Lenni nods, and then continues her story.
“I’d spent most of my twelve years entertaining myself, so when I needed to learn to ride, there was no one to hold the bike.” Her family lived in an Ontario housing complex courtyard, and bordering this courtyard was a high curb. Walking the bike to the curb, Lenni pushed off for momentum.
“Right away, I fell over,” she tells me. “Again, I balanced and pushed off. Again I fell. Again. Again. Again. And then suddenly, I caught my balance and went for a ride, giggling and laughing! Finally, I had freedom. And I had something to do.”
“What a great story about learning to ride!” I tell her warmly.
Having a bicycle allowed Lenni to travel outside the immediate neighbourhood, where it wasn’t always safe to play. She could visit parks free of needles and broken bottles, she could reach the library and her doctor’s office, she could ride streets where police cruisers weren’t her constant companion. She could go to her friends’ houses, because they weren’t allowed to visit her. Lenni leans forward and tells me, “Children in vulnerable neighbourhoods are limited to what they can reach on foot.” She sits back again, returning to her reverie. “Having a bicycle completely opened the world,” she tells me. “That rusty, crooked bike with a banana seat created a love for cycling that changed my life.”
“If it wasn’t always safe for you in your neighbourhood,” I ask with some curiosity, “then there must be inherent risks for the bike, too?” There were. For instance, the tires got slashed so for a time she was grounded. Determined to ride again, Lenni waited until she got her first job, and when they handed her that pay cheque, she walked half an hour to the nearest Canadian Tire and pointed to a red, ten-speed SuperCycle with white handlebar tape.
“I was too young to even have a bank account,” Lenni tells me, “but the store graciously allowed me to cash my cheque then and there, and the bike was mine.”
Lenni’s entire universe shifted on that ride home.
“I felt like a fifteen-year-old bad ass,” she says. Her confidence in her potential future welled up. Despite having no money for transportation, her SuperCycle now took her on errands, on joy rides, to the pool, to programs. “A bike can be so many things,” she enthuses. “If I hadn’t had that bike, I doubt I’d have gotten a university education. That bike was my wheels: it carried me to a lot of practical destinations.”
Once Lenni established her career, she realized how lucky she was to have gotten out of her difficult circumstances.
“A bike is empowering,” I agree. “It can get a kid out of a difficult life.”
“A bike doesn’t solve problems,” she says nodding her head, “but it does give kids a chance. It creates possibility, an open door. Mobility makes such a difference.”
As an adult, Lenni would cycle through her old neighbourhood and would see kids walking to school and to work. She wondered how she could get involved. She approached a few community groups to enquire about getting just five discarded bikes to distribute.
“Quickly, I became part of a chain of people, part of the larger bike recycling network,” she relates, laughing.
“Yes!” I say. “I’ve discovered an astonishing network of people dedicated to keeping bikes circulating!”
“I’m so in love with cycling,” Lenni says. “There’s so much power there.” She calls it “the bike effect”, where people get involved to make this happen. “A donated bike represents a community that cares.”
Furthermore, donors never feel they’re unloading a bike: they all have a genuine desire to see a kid enjoy cycling. “As a bike is transferred from one child to another,” Lenni explains, “you’re passing on the independence and freedom that comes from cycling.”
One of the first bikes to be donated under the My First Wheels program went to a five-year-old boy in Lenni’s old neighbourhood: it was his Christmas gift. Later, Lenni heard described how the boy would visit the bike, stored in his basement, during the winter months: “he’d just sit on that bike for hours.”
Another time, at a donation event, My First Wheels and the Bicycle Commons were working together distributing children’s bikes. At the end of the day, there was one family left—a father accompanying his ten-year-old daughter and his four-year-old son. The daughter was easy to fit with a donated bike. The boy was harder to match. The only bike in his size had a problem with the chain. On his face was blatant despair. ‘Not me?’ it seemed to plead. The volunteer mechanics tried hard not to overpromise, but Lenni tells me they worked frantically, searching for parts while the time ticked away. Suddenly, someone pointed to a bike that everyone had assumed was too big for the boy. “What if we lower the seat?” they suggested. A mechanic loosened the seat and moved it down: the boy and bike were a match.
“As I was leaving the building,” Lenni says, “I could hear him giggling, learning to ride his new bike in the pathway, behind me.”
Lenni, an accomplished, successful adult, rides as if she’s still that fifteen-year-old girl.
“Sometimes,” she says, “as I’m riding down the Poplar Plains hill, I scream out loud, ‘I AM SO HAPPY!’”
“That sounds to me like the bike effect, at full volume,” I encourage her.
The coffee shop is closing. Looking out the window, I realize the storm has hit Toronto. The street is pitch black and the few cars braving this weather are splashing through astonishing quantities of rainwater. Miss J is being pelted. I pick up my helmet, and everyone in the coffee shop looks at me as if I’m crazy. “I won’t melt,” I assure them. “And I have to get home!”
Miss J and I walk across the Eglinton Avenue intersection, my bright, white t-shirt clinging to my shoulders, and the bike lights blazing. We ride cautiously on the deserted sidewalk for a couple of blocks and then turn south on Bathurst Street. At Ava Road, we head west and swing onto the road. I giggle. And then I laugh out loud, with abandon. It’s raining harder than I’ve ever experienced and I can hardly keep my sopping shoes clipped in, but Lenni’s bike effect has claimed my imagination: thanks to my bike, I’m going to make it home. And this is one ride where every spin of the pedals is going to end intentionally with an exclamation mark!