At the Wichita Children’s Home Opportunity Zone, teens that have nowhere else to go are getting a chance to make their lives better. Part of the program is known as the Bike Shed. It gives kids a chance to earn their own bike and the knowledge and tools needed to keep it maintained.
On a chilly December afternoon Ward Jewell is outside of the Opportunity Zone. He’s at the bike shed, working with an 18-year-old boy named Dalton.
“Well, there’s always something," Jewell says while slowly moving through the gears of a bike propped up on a stand. "When you’re working on old bikes. When you’re working on old stuff.
"The gears don’t even need to be adjusted,” he says, with a little amazement.
Behind them is the shed. It’s about two years old, and it’s full of tools and bike parts of all kinds.
“And actually it's just a shed," he says. "We don’t have electricity, but we have about a dozen bicycles hanging in various places here.”
The bikes have all been donated, and kids who come to the Opportunity Zone, or OZ, as they call it, can earn one by working with Jewell and helping out around the facility.
“The bicycles to them are transportation," Jewell says. "When they first come in here, their main mode of transportation is walking. So, if you walk everywhere, getting a bicycle is a big improvement over that.”
The Opportunity Zone is a part of the Wichita Children’s Home street outreach services program. It’s meant to be a drop-in center for youth in crisis between the ages of 14 and 21.
“We help them with housing. We help them with employment. We also help them with anything they might need,” says OZ manager Chanel Wheeler. She’s inside a basement they’ve rented in a small building near 11th and Broadway.
“Me personally, I don’t consider our kids as homeless kids. We don’t come to you and say, 'Hey, are you homeless?'" Wheeler says. "Most of our kids consider themselves as couch surfing. 'So, how long have you been couch surfing?' is what we’ll ask. 'How long have you been in the situation that you’re in?' You know what I mean? Instead of saying, 'Oh my gosh, this kid is homeless.'”
While small, the place has plenty to offer. It has an art room, a clothes closet, bathrooms and showers, a place to do laundry, and a living room area with computers, couches and a pool table. Wheeler says 35 to 40 people per month come through the facility.
One of those is a 20-year old woman named Angel. She’s been coming to OZ for a while and is about to age out of the program.
“I’d be homeless if I didn’t have these people here and they weren’t helping me build," Angel says. "Like, they give you what you need. If you need hygiene, if you need clothes. I come here every week, and they give me what I need to maintain.”
Back outside at the shed, Jewell is helping a boy named Dalton go through a stack of lightly used tires.
“Hey, Ward, do you know where another tire is?" Dalton asks. "Because this one, it just broke. Totally a hole in it.”
They’re hoping to find a replacement for the bike Dalton has been working on.
“I don’t know, will any of these work?” Dalton asks.
"No, those are all 26," Jewell says. "I thought I saw a narrow tire in there, but there’s not.”
They don’t find one, but Jewell says he’ll go and buy a couple and bring them next week. Dalton’s on his third bike from the shed.
“The first one was messed up because it was run over by a car," he says. "Don’t ask me how that happened.”
He says he uses his bike all the time, and it has become an important way for him to get around.
“If my mom is busy or my sister is busy and nobody can drive me anywhere, I just get up, get on my bike, and I go," Dalton says. "Riding them is just nice. I use them for a lot of things. I even use them to walk the dog.”
The bike shed is open every Thursday afternoon between 3 and 5 p.m. Jewell says he would love to see the shed open more days, but, for now, they just don’t have enough volunteers to staff it.
In the meantime, Jewell is there almost every week.
“I love bikes, and I love working with kids," he says. "And the group, like I said, the group of kids here are the nicest bunch of kids you could ever want to know.
"Whatever situation they’re in, it is through absolutely no fault of their own. So, they’re just a pleasure to work with.”
Follow Brian Grimmett on Twitter @briangrimmett .
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