03 December 2018

Getting To Where They Need To Go

I learned something interesting today:  Boise, Idaho has one of the largest refugee populations, per capita, of any US city.  Moreover, it has more Syrian refugees than Los Angeles and my hometown, New York, combined.

That Boise has so many Syrian refugees is particularly striking when you know that Los Angeles has the largest number of Middle Eastern immigrants of any US city. (Interestingly, Detroit is second.)  People familiar with the Idaho capital point to its relatively low cost of living and friendly climate as "draws" for people fleeing persecution and other forms of violence in other countries.

So why am I mentioning such things in this blog?  Well, like other refugees, the Syrians in Boise are, for the most part, poor.  They can't afford bikes for their kids, or even themselves.  What this means, of course, is not only are kids deprived of something that makes childhood more fun; the parents are deprived of an inexpensive ways to get exercise (which can help them deal with the trauma some suffer) and, even more important, to work or school:  Some can't get drivers' licenses because they lack documentation.

There is another group of people about whom I could say exactly the things I've just said about the Syrian refugees in Boise (or other refugees in other places).  Who are they?  Parolees.

This connection is what makes a program called "Shifting Gears" possible.  It grew out of the Boise Bicycle Project (BBP), a non-profit organization whose goal is to get everyone in the city, whatever his or her income, on a bike--and thus eliminate barriers to transportation.

The workshop at South Boise Women's Correctional Center

Jimmy Hallyburton co-founded BBP in 2007 in a former homeless shelter.    He opened a DIY bicycle shop much like Recycle-A-Bicycle and similar operations in other cities.  In BBP's facililty, a lycra-clad cyclist might be adjusting gears on a triathlon bike with a five-figure price tag alongside a Syrian refugee looking for a basic machine to ride to work.  

Some of the people BBP has taught to fix bikes became volunteers who helped clean, repair and adjust bikes that were distributed to poor city residents, children and adults alike.  

In the course of giving bikes to the needy, Hallyburton learned of the difficulties parolees face.   The biggest is, of course, employment:  Many would-be employers don't want to hire someone who's "done time."  But, even when a potential employer is willing to give a chance to someone who has "paid their debt to society," there is another problem:  getting to the job.  Recently-released prisoners find it difficult, or even impossible, to get a driver's license.  Even if they could get such a document, they might not be able to afford a car--or even a bicycle.

That is how he came up with the idea of Shifting Gears.  He pitched it to the Idaho Department of Correction, who loved it.  Different sites vied for it; eventually, South Boise Women's Correctional Center won out.  An officer volunteered to run the program and scheduled training days with a mechanic who volunteered to train inmates who would become mentors to others who joined the project.

So, for the past two years, some 200 incarcerated women have been stripping, cleaning, lubing and wrenching donated or salvaged bikes that are donated to people who couldn't otherwise afford them.

Finally, when participants are released, they are given a bike sized for their height, as well as a helmet, lock and light.  So they, like the folks who've received the bikes they fixed, will have at least one barrier to integrating with society removed.

The bikes that await them aren't the only benefits of the program.  Seeing how their work changed other people's lives have made some of them want to continue that work, or to help in other ways, when they're released.  For some, including one inmate whose release is scheduled for next month, being able to think that way is perhaps the most valuable thing she's gained from the program.

When Jessica Halbesleben, one of Shifting Gears' original participants and mentors, gets out in January, she will have a job waiting for her--with BBP.  And, of course, she'll have a bike she can ride to it.