"Every kid should have a bicycle," said Ernie Mueller, retired Juneau public works director-turned-volunteer bike mechanic.
He spends his Wednesday afternoons at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, fixing bikes for low-income students and teaching the students to fix the bikes themselves.
"I like fixing things, and I like working with my hands," Mueller said.
When he retired last year, he found himself with more time to work on his garage-full of bikes. An opportunity to put his skills to good use for others came when he was talking to Dzantik'i Heeni guidance counselor Sally Donaldson.
"Somehow we started talking about bicycles, and she told me there was a girl in the school that needed a bicycle, and the family didn't have the money to buy her one," Mueller said.
The Juneau Police Department donated an abandoned bike to the school, and Mueller used his time and tools to fix it and give it to the student.
The first bike was only the beginning.
Mueller and Donaldson met with Levi Irish, a VISTA volunteer at the school, and they acquired about a dozen more bikes from the police department and three others from community members. Then they had students help return them to riding condition.
"We found out we could help a lot of kids," said Irish.
Now, "every kid who signs up who wants a bike, we try to get them one," said Irish. She and Donaldson prioritize students who are in the free or reduced-price lunch program at the school or students who are just known to have a need.
"Levi has been amazing," Donaldson said. "She's got a lot of energy and she's really committed to working with families who are in need."
Mueller meets with students at the school for 112 hours every Wednesday afternoon. He and the students have fixed eight bikes since Feb. 19, when the program started. Only students with helmets get bikes, Irish said.
"But we'll help them with that, too, if they need it," she said.
Aaron Tucker, a sixth-grader at the school, had a bike with a mangled chain, bent handlebars and broken brakes. He met with Mueller for a couple of Wednesday bike-fixing sessions, and now has a usable bike.
"I learned how to fix all of the stuff that was wrong with my bike, and I learned cooperation and teamwork," Tucker said. He now rides his bike to school, around his neighborhood and in the empty Kmart parking lot.
He learned enough from working with Mueller to help fix some of his friends' bikes as well, Tucker said.
"It's good watching them be so attentive to learning something," said Donaldson. "It gives them more ownership and respect. They're likely to take better care of their bikes."
Bicycles from the police department are abandoned or unclaimed. Such bikes are auctioned, destroyed or donated to programs such as the middle school's, said police Capt. Tom Porter.
Not all of the department's bicycles are worth fixing, but some can be used for parts, Irish said.
She helped two students petition Greens Creek Mining Co. for $100 to help buy more parts for the old bikes, and wrote a grant for more funding for helmets and parts from the Fred Meyer Foundation. Mountain Gears, a local bike shop, donated parts as well, Irish said.
To donate bikes, parts or time to the Dzantik'i Heeni repair program, call Irish at 463-1899, extension 231.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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