How Woodlawn kids are learning to fix bikes—and become leaders | Feature | Chicago Reader

How Woodlawn kids are learning to fix bikes—and become leaders 

The "masters mechanics" program at Blackstone Bicycle Works aims to build community.

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click to enlarge On Fridays, Blackstone Bicycle Works' participants gather for weekly bike rides through Woodlawn. Each youth is selected by the amount of hours they put into the shop per week, and promising candidates are asked to help lead and rate the route. - SEBASTIÁN HIDALGO
  • On Fridays, Blackstone Bicycle Works' participants gather for weekly bike rides through Woodlawn. Each youth is selected by the
    amount of hours they put into the shop per week, and promising candidates are asked to help lead and rate the route.
  • Sebastián Hidalgo

Children in color-coded aprons stream in and out of a building on a backstreet in Woodlawn. It’s 3 PM on a recent weekday afternoon at Blackstone Bicycle Works, which is filled with the sounds of tools hitting aluminum and enthusiastic children working on bikes. The community-oriented shop at 6100 S. Blackstone is training roughly 175 students between the ages of eight and 18 this year in a program that not only teaches them bike mechanics and customer service skills but also offers a safe space where they can grow and become leaders.

Aaliyah Epting of Woodlawn, who’s 14, wears a red apron as she hangs out in the homework room. The program is similar to martial arts in that kids earn different-colored aprons based on their mastery of skills. Aaliyah, who just graduated from Carnegie Elementary and has trained at Blackstone for just under a year, has mastered three of the five tiers and now has moved to the internship level. To earn her red apron she put in hours in each of five areas: academics, leadership, art, food prep, and bike mechanics.

RELATED: READ ALL OF OUR BIKE WEEK COVERAGE

As part of her internship, Aaliyah helps out around the shop, including putting her new bike-repair skills to the test.

One of her proudest moments came during a ride last year when a Blackstone employee “asked me to lead [while] we were in the middle of the route. I thought I was in trouble at first,” she says now. She took over and has led rides since. “It got really fun for me,” she said.

She hopes to become the fourth young woman to achieve the black apron that signals the “master mechanic” level. She’s encouraged by her instructors, who say she’s a quick learner with impressive leadership abilities. “They noticed something different in me,” she says proudly.  v

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