North Bellingham bike shop offers neighborhood kids a safe hangout

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 10, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Kids and teens in Birchwood and Meridian neighborhoods may have a new favorite hangout: Sterling Bike Works.

The shop, which opened for its second season on April 2, is a safe place for kids to fix their bikes with the help of founder Melanie Swanson.

Sterling Bike Works is located in a renovated storage container that sits in the parking lot of Sterling Drive Church of Christ in north Bellingham. Neighborhood kids tend to drop by after school hours to hang out, color, shoot some hoops and work on their wheels.

The majority of bike troubles that Swanson sees roll in are flat tires - "That makes up probably 75 percent of repairs."

But as a seasoned bicycle mechanic, who spent time working at The Hub bike shop, Swanson can also teach kids about how to fix more complicated issues when they come up.

"They're not shy; as soon as they hear about it they come around and start checking it out," Swanson said. "It's also having this new thing in the neighborhood. They don't have a park, so it's a good place to hang out."

For now, the shop operates under the umbrella of the church. Swanson accepts donated bikes and parts, and has a partnership with Bellingham Police Department, which donates bikes from the lost and found after they've been sitting in storage too long.

Kids can buy one of the bikes for a low subsidized rate, usually about $10, in exchange for putting in some work to fix one up and maintain it, Swanson said.

She hopes to teach kids bicycle safety and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

"If they don't have a helmet, they will have to buy a helmet from me, and a lock, to teach them safe and smart techniques," Swanson said. "I don't think there's much point in selling it to them if they're not going to be safe."

A similar bike repair space occupied that area for a few years before the owner became ill and had to close up shop, Swanson said. When it came to opening up Sterling, Swanson wanted to model the shop after other successful ventures that have popped up around the country.

Swanson hopes to closely mimic Bike Works, a set of three Seattle shops located in neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of obesity and asthma in King County, and with higher levels of families living below the poverty line.

Among the programs Bike Works offers is an eight-week, earn-a-bike program.

"I interviewed the executive director of Bike Works in Seattle for some pointers," Swanson said. "It's a model that works really well. Kids love bikes, and it's a great way of distracting them from other things like drugs or sitting around watching TV all day."

Sterling is open to kids under the age of 18 from 3:30 to 6 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, and from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday. Swanson works a couple of other jobs in addition to running the shop, so it's a good idea to call ahead if you plan to drop by, at 360-303-6262.

More information is also available at sterlingbikeworks.org.

Swanson hopes to eventually hire other staff and open shops around the city, so kids in various neighborhoods have access to the program.

"That's my dream, I don't know how I would get there," she said. "Bike riding is the best thing on the planet. It's given me more joy than anything else ever has, so I want to be able to share that with other people."

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at Samantha.Wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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