Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg is charting a new course for those in need
Andrea Rose, Reporter
A Harrisburg nonprofit is helping youngsters and adults on their journey through life by providing them with the tools, training, and transportation to get them where they want to go.
Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg provides those in need with bicycles, while also giving them the skills they need to maintain the bikes and connects them to resources that will help ensure a smooth ride ahead.
Putting the wheels in motion
Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg—RBH—began rather by accident 20 years ago.
“My wife and I were always part of outreaches,” recalled Ross Willard, founder/chief maintenance officer. “We were feeding people in Harrisburg… I’m watching these kids go down the hill with no brakes and I thought, ‘If we don’t feed them, they can live for three weeks because they can get water anywhere and you can live on water for three weeks, but if you don’t have brakes, the next intersection could kill you.’ I pulled out my tool kit and began fixing bikes.”
But Willard didn’t stop with a few bike repairs in that one evening. He began fixing bicycles on street corners, at block parties and at events across the city. “The tool kit became a toolbox. The toolbox became my van. The van became a trailer,” Willard explained.
Soon, he realized one man with a big heart and a bunch of tools wasn’t enough to meet the needs of the community, so he began recruiting volunteers to help.
They based their bicycle maintenance shop at Willard’s home, filling his basement and yard with bikes and parts.
After six years, the operation had taken over his house and it was time to turn the hobby into a legitimate business.
So, in 2007, what has become known as RBH was founded in a 3,000-square-foot basement facility where all of the bikes and parts could be stored, along with space for the repairs to be done.
Then came another move or two until 2019, when the current location at 1722 Chestnut Street in Harrisburg was purchased.
“We are right in the heart of the city. If you were going to drop a pin into the map of Harrisburg, you would find that’s where we are at,” Willard said. We strategically planned that. We’re right across the street from Hamilton Health Center. We are where the need is the greatest.”
Volunteers took the 9,000-square-foot warehouse and rehabbed it with electricity, plumbing and drywall and turned it into a safe, accessible, professional facility.
“This building has to be professional,” Willard said. “It has to outlive us all.”
Pedaling the basics of life
The new home base provided not just an opportunity to fix more bicycles, but also to help fix lives.
In talking with his neighbors, Willard realized a local halfway house had residents that needed transportation to get to work, but cars were out of their reach.
“What are the basics in life? Food, oxygen, water, shelter … what’s the next basic in life? It is not the cell phone. The third basic of life is transportation,” Willard explained. “Cars and insurance … they have to pay at least a thousand dollars every six months to get a piece of paper. It does them no good. A bicycle takes no insurance, it takes no gas, it takes no oil.”
But Willard knew better than to just give away bikes.
“If we just give a bicycle … they ride it, it breaks, they throw it away and say, ‘I need another bike.’ That’s not helpful. I tell them they are worth $10 an hour. I tell them if they work for 2 hours on a bike, two times $10 is $20. They now deserve to have $20 worth of bikes or accessories or whatever,” Willard explained.
The requirement ensures new bike owners that they can not only take care of their bikes and do general maintenance, but also drives them to self-sufficiency.
“We use the bicycles as a way to move them forward, not just physically, but spiritually, emotionally. ‘You can fix this. You can do this. You can go get a job.’ The same thing for the kids.”Ross Willard, founder/chief maintenance officer Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg
Every bicycle given away is registered and licensed so that if it gets stolen, it can be returned.
Proceeds from the sale of the bicycles goes into purchasing tires, tubes, chains and cables, so that more bikes can be maintained.
But Willard is clear RBH is not designed to be a money-making venture. “They don’t pay me. They pay themselves. They create a job. If they get a flat, they come back and they fix their flat. Some of them get ‘bit by the bug’ and they’ll come in every day to volunteer. Sometimes bike shops will hire my guys. I say take my best volunteer. They hire them. We’re a job training center.”
Riding in tandem
And the training doesn’t have to stop at bicycles.
Willard makes sure those who have bicycles also are given opportunities.
“We ask them where are you going? What’s your plan,” Willard said. “We want everybody to move forward. We’re just using the bicycle as a vehicle to move forward, not just pedal somewhere. It’s really not Recycle Bicycle, it’s Recycle People.”
He then points them in an appropriate direction and, sometimes, he points them right down the street.
John J. “Ski” Sygielski, president & CEO of HACC is an RBH board member and chair of the communications/fundraising committee sees the benefits of RBH both as a volunteer and at HACC, where some of the RBH clients end up.
“Many students come to us because of the bicycles they’ve received at RBH. It does so much more than just repair bicycles. For some of these people, it’s the only mode of transportation to keep them employed,” Sygielski said. “Ross is a graduate of HACC. Ross knows how education changes lives, destinies, and family trees. I see it as such integration between RBH and HACC. We both are changing a life, a destiny or a family tree.”
In fact, Willard has a network of folks both on the RBH board of directors and beyond that support his mission.
CourseVector, a web developer/hosting and SEO company based in Camp Hill, worked with RBH to ensure that the nonprofit’s mission reaches potential clients, volunteers and donors through a responsive website that streamlines so many tasks that had fallen on Willard and the volunteers.
“When we first started doing this, I was the webmaster,” Willard recalled. “You could tell it was the same page duplicated over and over again. My focus has to be on our program. I needed to use the technology to move this past me. CourseVector has brought us up to the next level.
[The new website] is so clear and concise. It’s snazzy. This grabs everyone’s attention. It brought us up to another level.”
“Since the pandemic, obviously technology and websites are most important,” added Sygielski. “The good work CourseVector did in that website now allows us to drive volunteers to the site to sign up; it’s able to drive donors to the site to think about investing in RBH; when we’re doing grants, it allows us to drive the granting organizations to see more about what’s going on; and curious folks when they read about it in social media are able to go there. We’ve been a little bit late to the table, but thanks to CourseVector, we’re able to market ourselves, advertise ourselves, get ourselves out there more than we ever did before.”
And it’s helped bring RBH to the social media scene.
“We have a live feed from our Facebook page on our site to keep it more active. We were able to connect our social media to it because that’s a lot of what’s being done to get the word out to people. It takes all the technology and helps us harness it for getting the word out about the organization,” said Anne Aufiero, CEO/Communications Executive Officer for AdAbility Marketing Communications who, as an RBH volunteer, has worked with CourseVector to create the website.
Willard said overall, CourseVector has helped them save time and money.
“We’re using it to do registration. Before that, I did all the registrations,” he said. “I would have to sit there and read the hieroglyphics. Now, we have this neat nifty little pad thingy that has it ready to go. No more paper. That’s saved us tons of man hours or woman hours. It has taken a lot off my plate.”
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A smooth ride
In the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses and nonprofits struggled to survive, but RBH not only stayed the course, but took the hills and valleys handily.
“In 2020, we took a building that was gonna be condemned in a couple of years – the roof was gone. We renovated the building and continued our bike program even during the pandemic because we’re an essential business. We shipped almost 1,000 bikes overseas,” Willard said.
Locally, last year alone, RBH gave away more than 1,500 individual bikes and more than 600 children’s bikes for Christmas through a variety of charities, organizations, schools and churches and fixed as many as 2,500 bicycles.
“We’ve gone from working on street corners to unheated buildings,” Willard recalled, adding safety is key. “We’ve now seen you have to do things professionally. This has been a transformational year.”
Help out the RBH Mission
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