INDIANAPOLIS — Don’t let John Tanner’s youth fool you, this young man is an expert when it comes to fixing bikes.
John is a mechanic at Freewheelin’ Community Bikes where his skills with a wrench earn him decent money, especially considering he’s only 15 years old.
“I wasn’t actually very good at working on bikes when I started,” John said. “I kind of thought I did (know how to fix bikes) because I could fix a flat, and then I turned out to be very wrong.”
Mechanic aprons at Freewheelin are green, red, purple, and black depending on your skill level. John’s journey to becoming a skilled “black apron” began about five years ago when at age 10 he enrolled in Freewheelin’s "Earn-a-Bike" program.
Through Earn-a-Bike, young people ages 10 to 18 will work on a bicycle that needs some repairs and attention.
They spend four weeks learning the parts of a bike, fixing flat tires, and taking on other common bike repairs. At the end, they’ll make friends, learn problem-solving skills and earn a green apron.
And they keep the bike.
Freewheelin sells and fixes bikes from a retail store at 34th Street and Central Avenue, but it's not a typical bike shop.
Earn-a-bike is one of many programs at the non-profit shop, that promotes bicycles and riding in economically challenged communities. It reported $343,000 total revenue in 2019, according to its most recent tax forms.
The shop also sponsors rides and community events aimed at getting more people in Indianapolis onto bicycles. This year, the shop received a $23,000 crime-prevention grant from the City-County Council to support a program that pays at-risk youths to work in the shop as apprentices.
It's served about 1,800 young people since its launch in 2009 in the basement of a Methodist church.
Tyre’k Swanigan, 20, worked as an apprentice in 2015. Freewheelin, he said, is a place where everyone is welcome.
"We are community-based so we don't leave anyone left behind, despite your age, sexual orientation, or race," Swanigan said. "We all stick together and move forward from there."
Swanigan is now the director of programs at Freewheeliin. He said he is working towards a social work degree. Freewheelin, he said, gives him a chance to help people.
"I'm not just helping students, I'm helping their parents and I'm helping the whole Fall Creek community," Swanigan said.
Quinn Sempsrott wasn’t all that interested in bicycles when his mom signed him up for the Earn-a-Bike classes about nine years ago.
“So she signed me up and I reluctantly went, because, you know, parents,” Sempsrott said. “But I really ended up liking it.”
Sempsrott, 20, was just 11 years old when he attended the Earn-a-Bike program. He described himself as a lazy kid, who spent hours inside the house just building with Lego bricks.
Sempsrott found he enjoyed working on bikes. He kept coming back to Freewheelin’s backroom garage and learning more and more mechanical skills.
Now, he’s the assistant shop manager and teaches the new kids going through the Earn-a-bike program.
“It's always fun to get kids involved,” Sempsrott said. “I was one of those kids who just wanted to mess with stuff and I get to do that now.”
Nicole Patterson-Cline works in Freewheelin's retail store. She said the bike shop has introduced bicycling to a part of the city that doesn't typically get much attention.
"I really, really think that cycling has an opportunity to be so much more accessible than it is. I think Freewheelin is the perfect bridge to that," Patterson-Cline said.
"All you really have to do is get out on a bike and be happy about that. Freewheelin makes that possible."
There are a few spots left in the next Earn-a-Bike class Sept. 15-Oct. 8. It costs $25 to enroll.
To learn more about the program, visit the shop's website, FreewheelinBikes.org.
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc.