Last year Ron King gave away 1,457 bikes. If a child shows up at his warehouse looking for a bike, he doesn't ask questions. He simply leads that child into the showroom and lets her pick a favorite.
King never intended to run a bona-fide (albeit unregistered) charity. At first, it was just about giving 100 kids a great holiday. In December 2007, King saw a news clip about policemen fixing unclaimed bikes and donating them to charities. Eight months later, on July 31, he bought his first bike from a classified ad — a tiny, purple affair that cost $35. He planned to buy another 99 bikes, fix them up and give them out by Christmas. "It seemed that $2,500 to make 100 kids happy was little enough," he said. But as word got around, the donations poured in. It seemed everyone King knew had a garage full of abandoned bikes. By October 2008, King had over 450 bikes, and by the end of that year, Recycle Bikes for Kids had repaired and distributed 300 bikes. But King and his volunteers still had about 150 bikes left. "My idea of just doing it as a one-time thing went out the window. It continued to grow. Every day someone would drop off a bike," King said.
He had about 3,000 square feet of leftover space in the warehouse where he operates his manufacturing business, Refurbished Office Panels. Currently, about 600 bikes nestle handlebar-to-handlebar on three-tier industrial shelves, awaiting repairs. Some of the bikes are a few years old. Others are steel-framed, banana-seat classics dating back to the '70s. Some days Recycle Bikes receives a dozen donated bikes, and depending on the number of volunteers, King is able to repair around 30 bikes a week. He holds workdays on Thursday mornings, Tuesday evenings and every other Saturday morning at the warehouse at 1212 E. 6th St.
A lot of volunteers are serious cyclists or employees at local bike shops, but Recycle Bikes welcomes novices, as well.
"The seasoned volunteers are glad to take someone under their wing and show them how to repair something. There are people who ride a lot, but have never changed a flat. We're happy to teach them something like that," King said. And there are always bikes to be washed and tires to be aired. "All the bike shops give us their old tubes and tires, but we don't know if they have holes in them or what. There may be a day when one person just airs up tubes. The next morning, we see which ones are flat. Those are the ones that have to be patched," he added.
In addition to providing free bikes to kids, King lets adults work three hours on Thursday mornings to earn a bike. "We've got a lot of working homeless in this town. We've got homeless who are homeless by circumstance — economy, catastrophic illness, divorce. Those folks find places like Our House that can help them get back on their feet. We also have those who are homeless by choice. They're not looking for anybody to take care of them, but they need a way to get around. They need a bike to get to the health clinics or the plasma center or the soup kitchens. Those are people we primarily see on Thursdays ... and some of them are good mechanics," King said.
Early on, King struggled with his open-door policy. "When I started this, people would come and I would think, gosh, do they deserve a bike, would it be better to give this bike to someone else, and that about drove me crazy. In a very short time, I turned loose of all that. ... If someone leaves here and goes straight to the pawn shop, I can't control it. And they're not my bikes anyway, so it's not up to me to make that decision," he said.
King provides bikes for all the children at Our House, a local shelter, and any adults living there that need job transportation. Each year he gives about 100 bikes to Cayce's Charities in Thornton (Calhoun County) and anytime he gets a tandem bike, it goes straight to World Services for the Blind. "They use them to take some of their visually impaired clients for bike rides. So many of those people have never been on a bike, so it's a lot of fun," King said. Rarities such as therapeutic bikes and extra-large tricycles are set aside for Arkansas Children's Hospital, and King will give any church as many bikes as it needs.
Cassidy Kreulen, 12, has spent a couple of Saturdays at Recycle Bikes with the YMCA of Metropolitan Little Rock's Pedal Project. The first week, 10 kids and a handful of parents chose bikes and spent the day repairing them. The second week, they learned bike safety. Last Saturday, after a trail ride, everyone took their bikes home. Kreulen is excited about biking to seventh grade. "I was thinking I was just going to have to walk, but there's a place on my bike to strap my French horn. A bike is a better alternative than carrying a big old French horn to school," she said. She chose a teal bike with pink flowers, and spent that first Saturday tightening seats and replacing pedals. She hopes to donate her old bike and spend some upcoming Saturdays volunteering at Recycle Bikes.
Each bike that comes through King's shop bears a three-inch long "Jesus Loves Me" sticker, donated by Daniel Label Printing in North Little Rock. "Those stickers originated with Bob Mack, a guy who was at Church of Rock Creek. He had a program where he was working on bikes and his health got bad, so I sort of picked up some of what he did," King said. "And that was a sticker he put on every bike. It made sense to me. We'll have kids who'll come in and say, hey can you fix a flat, and we'll say, did you get that bike here, and they'll say yeah, and we'll say, where's the sticker, and they'll say, it fell off. And I know they're pulling it off, but you know, it's their bike. But who knows what impact that sticker will have on them down the road?"