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Aurora man leads effort to give bikes to needy

MARLA R. KEOWN/Associated Press

James Compton, 13, volunteers his time to rebuild a bike at Aurora Warms The Night. Hundreds of rebuilt bikes have been donated to needy children and homeless people by Ernie Clark.

By BRANDON JOHANSSON
AURORA SENTINAL

AURORA – The small garage in north Aurora is about as packed with bicycles as it could be.

Bright-colored toddler-sized frames hang from the ceiling, dozens of front forks line one wall and close to a hundred bikes lean against each other in a few rows on the floor.

It’s certainly a lot of bikes, but Ernie Clark could always use a few more.

“Kids always need bikes,” Clark said as a volunteer bolted a purple-rimmed front wheel onto a child’s bike.

Over the last several years, Clark and a team of volunteers have rebuilt hundreds of bikes for needy children and area homeless people. For Christmas last year alone, they gave out 87 bikes.

Clark said this year he tried to work on the bikes more in the summer, so he and the volunteers don’t have to shiver in the chilly garage when winter rolls in.

Last year, as they tried to rebuild as many bikes as possible for the holiday, Clark said the volunteers battled some bitterly cold days.

“We’ll try not to do what we did last year,” he said with a laugh.

The project started with an Aurora firefighter a few years ago who wanted to provide bikes for kids who couldn’t otherwise afford them, Clark said. When the firefighter stepped aside, Clark took over, rebuilding bikes first in a friend’s garage before moving the operation to the garage behind Aurora Warms the Night.

Most of the bikes come from the Aurora police impound, Clark said, but others come from generous donors or people who just don’t have any use for the bikes any more.

Some of the bikes are high-end mountain bikes, with top-of-the-line components and pricey alloy frames. Others arrive at the garage in rough shape.

No matter the condition a bike arrives in, Clark and his crew of about a half dozen volunteers can find some use for it. If the tires are in good shape, they strip them off and use them to fix others. Rows of cabinets are filled with parts stripped from beat-up bikes.

And once they strip a bike down to the metal, they take the metal to a recycling facility and get a few bucks for it.

“And that buys us the rubber,” Harold Jarrett, one of the volunteers said.

Jarrett, 44, is one of a handful of homeless men who have volunteered with Clark and earned themselves a bike for their work.

“I worked, I didn’t know I was gonna get a bike, then I got a bike,” Jarrett said with a grin.

Having a bike is crucial for someone living on the street, Jarrett said. It’s the difference between spending what cash you have on a bus, or taking a bike to get where you need to go.

“It would take me all day to do an appointment if I had to walk,” he said. “Now, if I have a bike – zip, zap – it’s a big difference, it’s a real big difference.”

Holding onto the bikes on the street is a challenge, though. Jarrett said the first two he earned got stolen, and this week, he had a black eye from fending a would-be thief who tried to snatch his third one.

“I had to tackle the guy that was trying to steal it,” he said, pointing to a front rim that got bent during the scuffle.

It isn’t just the need for a bike that keeps Jarrett coming back to help Clark wrench on bikes. Working on the bikes is also fun.

“Each one is different,” he said. “You have to learn something new to repair each one.”

And it’s nice knowing their efforts are helping some local kids in need.

“I can remember being disadvantaged,” said volunteer David Nowlin as he took parts from three battered kids’ bikes to assemble a purple one in working order.

No matter what, Clark said he wants to make sure kids who want a bike can get their hands on one.

“Everyone needs one growing up,” he said.

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