Old Spokes Home gives new life to more than 600 bikes per year

The sign hanging at the Browns Point house says “Old Spokes Home,” but this isn’t where old bikes go to live out their final days.

It’s where old bikes go to be young again.

The Old Spokes Home is the hub of Marine View Presbyterian Church’s Bikes for Kids program. The community outreach effort started with modest intentions in 2000, but has grown into an operation that gives away more than 600 refurbished bikes per year.

Volunteers have sent bikes to Vietnam, Ghana, Seychelles, Sierra Leone and other places around the world, but their primary mission is giving bikes to those in need around the South Sound.

“It really has exceeded all of the expectations we had in 2000,” co-director Don Cowan said of the program that has processed more than 6,600 bikes.

It’s even outgrown its name. Co-director Bill Peterson estimates 40 percent of the bikes they repair and clean go to adults in need. They keep the name, however, because it sums up their core mission.

“We service anybody who needs a bike,” said Jim Weger, a Fircrest resident who has volunteered with the group for six years.

The official name of the Old Spokes Home is the Harold Neufang Bike Shop. Before Marine View took over the Bikes for Kids program, it was a one-man operation. Neufang repaired dozens of bikes and toys each year in his garage. Those bikes were given as Christmas gifts to needy children in Federal Way.

In 2000, Neufang died at age 94. The retired police officer was passionate about his work up to the end, and when he died, his daughter approached the church about finishing his work in time for Christmas.

Church members Cowan and Dick Shenk took the lead, visiting an REI sale to purchase bike stands and tools for their garages. They hoped to get 30 bikes ready for Christmas 2000, but after eight volunteers combined to finish just one bike on the first six-hour workday those aspirations seemed too lofty.

They weren’t exactly teeming with bike experts, but they made up for the lack of experience with persistence. They reached their goal.

They’d eventually find skilled volunteer bike mechanics such as Weger and Larry Schmick of Lake Tapps.

While Cowan calls volunteers with advanced bike mechanic skills “a godsend,” volunteers don’t need to know the difference between a bike fork and a salad fork to contribute at the Old Spokes Home.

“We have people here who know nothing about bike mechanics but are great organizers,” Weger said. “We have people who help with yard work and just detail bikes. … We’re always looking for dedicated volunteers.”

About 55 people volunteer each year, Peterson said, and of those about 16 are regulars. Roughly half of the volunteers are church members.

Bolstered by the success of its first 30-bike year in 2000, the group decided to raise the bar with a 100-bike goal the next year.

They lobbied the church to convert an old house — described on the group’s website as “an uninhabitable shack” — into the Old Spokes Home bike shop and raised $1,000 to have the house rewired.

Then they went to work. They met their 100-bike goal. Then they exceeded it.

Lacking the manpower to screen requests for bikes, Bikes for Kids organizers decided to donate the bikes to agencies who could. Peterson estimates Bike for Kids has given bikes to more than 30 agencies since 2000.

Veterans in Olympia get their bikes via Catholic Community Services. Some homeless families get bikes via the Tacoma Rescue Mission. Foster kids get bikes via the Pierce County juvenile court system. The Boy Scouts have received bikes. Local treatment centers have provided bikes to people recently released from prison.

The Old Spokes Home is humming with activity three mornings each week. The volunteers typically have six to eight bikes ready to roll each day, but sometimes the number is less depending on how much work the bikes need and how many volunteers are on hand.

Some bikes they receive are quite nice, but most are department-store specials. A sign on Schmick’s workbench says “Huffy Specialist.” They aren’t picky; they can turn almost any dilapidated ride into a working, dependable bike.

And if they can’t, they sell the bike as scrap and the money goes toward parts for other bikes.

Sometimes the volunteers get more bikes than they can process. These bikes — along with some that are refurbished — are often given to the Seattle-based Village Bicycle Project. The organization donates bikes and parts and teaches repair training to people in Africa.

Some of the highest-quality bikes and some antique bikes are repaired and sold at an annual sale. Every dollar goes back into the program, Cowan said. The money helps cover the cost of parts, seats, pedals and locks.

The Tacoma Wheelmen’s Bicycle Club donates helmets to be given away with the bikes.

Occasionally, those who receive the refurbished bikes track down the Old Spokes folks to tell them how much their new ride means to them.

Once, a Fox Island firefighter and his sons donated three high-end BMX bikes. “They were picture-perfect,” Peterson said. “I would have loved to have had one of these bikes when I was a kid.”

The bikes, along with helmets and locks, were donated to a Pierce County children’s advocate. Not long after, Bikes for Kids received a note that told the story of the bikes arriving on a rainy day.

The kids weren’t about to wait for a sunny day to take their first test ride. They came back soaked but beaming.

And so were the men at the Old Spokes Home as they retold the story.

“We enjoy what we do and the mission is honorable,” Peterson said, “and that’s what it’s all about.”