When Korey Ericson was 5 years old, his father spread out the parts of his first bike in front of him on the patio. “You’re going to learn to assemble this,” Korey remembers him saying, “and have a sense of ownership.”
The red frame, chunky blue five-spoke wheels, yellow tires and 80-some pieces of a BMX bike bought from Goodwill lay scattered among nuts, bolts and gears. The neighborhood kids gathered around to watch.
Twenty-five years later, Ericson’s mom and fiancée put together a book about his roots for his 30th birthday. It began with a photo of little Korey putting together his primary-color bike.
Now, Ericson will hand that lesson from his father down to Salinas youths who are getting a second chance.
An October community forum addressing breakouts from the Monterey County Youth Center gave voice to three new project proposals. One of them was called Bikes Not Gangs.
The idea resonated with BicyclingMonterey.com organizer Mari Lynch Dehmler, who had been working for years with both youth projects and cycling. After Monterey County’s second consecutive year with the highest youth homicide rate in California, she resolved: “Everyone able to find a way to plug in, should.”
She made it a pet project to find the right volunteers to get the project rolling. “They needed to not just have solid bike skills; they needed to have a genuine heart for the youth,” she says. “Most kids [at the youth center] don’t want to be in the situation they’re in.”
After the center’s two years of recruiting failed, she signed on three volunteers to instruct the Bikes Not Gangs class starting this week: Ericson, master bike mechanic Joseph Crabtree and safety instructor Frank Henderson.
Dehmler was thrilled when Crabtree personally offered to teach the class. The low-profile master mechanic contributes pro builds for road, mountain, and cyclocross competitions. Whereas many don’t want to work with the gang elements, she says Crabtree “has the heart to go past that and do the job.”
The class will begin with three students. The instructors will alternate, creating a three-to-one student-to-teacher ratio Ericson says is ideal. “Let them wander,” he says. “They’re not as apt to learn with too much attention.”
A police officer will be present at all the classes – but Dehmler doesn’t expect any behavior problems from the youths. “It’s so popular,” she says. “So many people want in that they wouldn’t blow the chance.”
Eighty percent of the juvenile detention center’s teenagers are gang involved, and 85 percent have had drug or alcohol problems. Trade skills – particularly in an arena as engaging as bicycles – offer another avenue.
The bike class mixes mastery of mechanics with responsibility and Ericson’s added cool-big-brother effect. Organizers haven’t picked the first students yet, but Richard Gray, the youth center’s division director, is already getting eager questions. “We have a Conex box [a large metal shipping container] with a wooden sign that says ‘Bike Shop’ hanging outside,” he says. “Every time I walk by, the kids ask about it.”
The Salinas Police Department donated unclaimed bikes. Ericson hopes that as the budding mechanics sort through the bikes, their interests can determine the direction of the class.
Ericson, a professional sign builder, says his decision to volunteer was a natural extension of his lifelong hobby. At home in Monterey, Ericson takes his fiancée’s 8-year-old son and his friends to BMX parks, helps neighborhood kids fix their bikes, and rides every Wednesday with his fiancée, Crystal.
He rebuilds his bikes in a style reflecting his self-sufficient nature, finding the elements he likes best in each. “Say money was no object; it would not be as much of a challenge. That would be the rich-kid syndrome,” he says. “I have the poor-kid syndrome. I made it work, it’s mine and I like it.”
He hopes to impart that sense of ownership to his students.
“They are either secluded, or had to become part of something they didn’t want to survive. I want them to find an interest in something new,” he says. “The goal is to break the habit. Should building a bike break the habit, that bike could then get them three miles farther.”
Ericson solemnly acknowledges the risk in empowering boys to deny gang ties once they get out. “But if just one kid ever decides not to get in a car and go on a drive-by [shooting],” he says, “it would be worth it.”
For more information on Bikes Not Gangs, visit www.bit.ly/bikesNOTgangs