To most people, bicycles are little more than a fun way to exercise. To the homeless, they're the ticket to a better life.
Fortunately for them, Brian Gravestock knows that. The longtime bicyclist and bike mechanic invests two days a week refurbishing mostly donated bicycles and giving them to homeless people. He runs Bike Clinic Too out of a donated garage, stuffed with bicycles in various states of repair, on Colorado Springs' west side.
News of the program gets out through word-of-mouth and brochures at shelters, halfway houses and soup kitchens. People in need can call or just stop by, and Gravestock adds their names to his notebook.
"I have 30 people on my waiting list," he says on one recent fall day. "And my list gets a little longer every week. If I put out five bikes, I'll get eight requests."
Gravestock, 54, leads three volunteers and two trainees, all working in their spare time. The trainees received donated bikes through the program and are paying that forward while learning a skill. Every week, the team finishes about five bikes, each taking three to five hours of work.
They'd like to have funding for one full-time or two part-time supervisors who are good with people, bicycles and paperwork. Gravestock also has a wish list of tools, pretty modest items: a derailleur hanger alignment tool, a metric wrench set.
The operation grew out of a nonprofit called the Bike Clinic, which Gravestock started with Peter Sprunger-Froese in 1993. The two bicycling fanatics had been helping people who needed bike repairs but couldn't afford them, then realized they had to formalize the arrangement.
Gravestock's life soon "veered in a different direction," though he would stay in the bike business and even run his own shop for 10 years. Sprunger-Froese continued the Bike Clinic. By summer 2009, with many people struggling economically, Sprunger-Froese was buried under requests.
"There was no way he could help all the people who were asking," Gravestock says. "He came to me and asked, 'If there was some way for you to be supported while doing this, can you do a bike clinic and help me with this overload?' So that's how the idea started. It took a year for us to incubate it from that concept."
Donations came from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs and the community. Criterium Bicycles, a longtime supporter of the Bike Clinic, continues to accept donations of bikes, parts and tools on Bike Clinic Too's behalf, as does Old Town Bike Shop.
In the past four months, Bike Clinic Too has given away 70 bikes, changing at least 70 lives.
On this day, Gravestock welcomes a middle-aged man named Bernard who heard about the program from a friend, also at a local shelter. Gravestock's only questions: "How tall are you?" and, after he finds the appropriate bicycle and adjusts the seat, "Do you like the bike?"
Bernard stops circling the parking lot, his smile electric, to talk about how this could change his situation.
"It'll help me do a lot. I catch the bus everywhere. I go see my kids and my wife. But the buses stop running at 6 o'clock and I can't get there. There's a lot of stuff I can't do, but this will help out a lot."
Gravestock watches Bernard ride away, then checks his name off the list. He knows he can't control the future of Bernard and his bike.
"There are many factors that can take [a life] off course," he says. "For example, I worked hard to get somebody a bike and they had it less than a week. It was either stolen or they sold it. I've also done things that were such small favors that I don't remember, and people have told me that it was a huge factor in changing their life."
The recipients know they can always return for repairs and a friendly handshake.
"When we first started the Bike Clinic, a young person who was very mentally ill, he stole all my personal tools, about $400 worth," Gravestock remembers. "And he got caught trying to sell them. I was thinking about prosecuting him, and Peter said, 'No, let's not prosecute him, let's befriend him. Let's teach him that he doesn't have to do that.' That's been an ongoing process for the last 15 years, and he feels a lot better. He came in and gave me a big hug not long ago.
"There's a transformative process that can take place, and I want to trust in that. I want to have faith that our love for one another can actually make a difference in this world."CLICK HERE for upcoming Give! events as well as photos from the Give! 2010 Kick-Off Celebration!