Repairing Bikes and Lives

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Jim Gardner

“What goes around, comes around,” is one western interpretation of Karma, and there’s probably no better illustration of the concept than Good Karma Bikes of San Jose, where those who once sought free help for their broken down bicycles are now helping others—while repairing their own lives in the process.

Under the motto, “Transportation for transformation,” the two-year-old nonprofit has grown from one laid off engineer fixing bikes for homeless people in St. James Park, to a team of volunteers that not only fix thousands of bikes each year for homeless and low-income clients, but also provide job training, as well as a friendly place to belong.

Every Saturday in a makeshift bicycle repair shop covered by bright red canopies near the Diridon Station (the clinic has since moved to a warehouse at 345 Sunol St., San Jose), loud cheers of welcome greet returning volunteers who come from all over the South Bay Area and Peninsula. As people line up with their bikes to be fixed between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.—between 30 and 40 every week—each person is greeted with friendly smiles and treated with great care and respect.

There is no charge for the repairs. The clients are considered the same as paying customers, and the volunteer mechanics strive to perform the same quality work as a professional bike shop.

While it may look like Good Karma Bikes is one more nonprofit providing free services to the community, founder and Executive Director Jim Gardner insists it’s something more.

“This is not about bikes. What this is about mostly is self-esteem reparation. That’s what I’ve come to learn this far along this journey,” Gardner said while fixing one of about a half dozen bikes in the repair center one recent Saturday morning

After noticing a “camper”, as he says, with a broken bike a few years ago, Gardner started out by loading his Camry with tools and parts and parking near St. James Park to fix bikes of the homeless people who gathered there. The Ph.D. engineer who also has a mechanics certificate from United Bicycle Institute of Ashland, OR.,. not only fixed the bikes, he offered to teach people how to fix their own bikes. Some decided to repay Gardner’s kindness by coming back to fix others’ bikes.

And then Gardner witnessed something happen that started him on the path of officially forming the nonprofit that became Good Karma Bikes: the people he taught to fix bikes started teaching others.

“When I saw what I taught them propagate out, that’s what really hooked me,” he said.

In addition to clients sticking around to help others, Gardner began attracting a range of community volunteers who found out by word of mouth what he was doing.

Word of mouth also brought more clients to Gardner’s repair clinics, and soon the Camry was too small to fit everything that was needed.

Around the same time Gardner filed papers to become a nonprofit, he approached the homeless service organization InnVision the Way Home about hosting the clinics on a weekly basis. The new partnership in February 2010 brought with it the advantage of storage at an InnVision shelter for all those tools and parts.

Earlier this year Good Karma Bikes moved its bike clinics to Diridon Station to be closer to the public transportation that both clients and volunteers use. It’s also brought in more people who see the canopies and banners from the street wondering what’s going on.

Besides InnVision and other nonprofits that service homeless and low-income people, Gardner partners with local bike shops and cycling clubs that save parts for Good Karma’s work. The group also receives donations and grants to defray costs.

Sometimes people donate old bikes, which the volunteers fix up and then raffle off to people who need transportation.

“The mobility can really be life changing for you,” said volunteer Justine Tamaro, a San Jose technical writer and cyclist who gladly gives up Saturday cycling time to Good Karma. She said having a bike gives people the ability to apply for jobs and find services.

“Thank the lord they’re here,” said client Evelyn Bonato, who found herself homeless after a series of setbacks. Now working toward a permanent home, she said her bike is critical. A flat tire once set her back $15 at a repair shop.

“If you’re homeless, or trying to get back on your feet, or just survive, that’s a lot of money,” she said.

Thanks to its success, Good Karma Bikes is expanding. The organization recently moved into a storefront at 345 Sunol St., San Jose, where

Foothill College student Gabe Rivera works on a bicycle for Good Karma Bikes.

Gardner and his team will conduct repair classes and provide transitional employment for job seekers.

“Again, it’s not about the bikes,” Gardner said. “It’s about demonstrating employability. From there we help people get jobs.”

The organization provides references, an aspect he said that, “can’t be understated; when you’re trying to get back in the game, that’s really hard. There’s a big barrier there.”

He said the Saturday clinics near Diridon Station would continue. Good Karma is expecting serve its 5,000th client around the Fourth of July.

Gardner is proud of the fact that the group never compromises on the quality of the free repairs. He said it gives both the clients receiving the repair and those providing it a feeling of self-worth and self-esteem.

He also said it gives those in training the learning experience of doing a good job, which builds confidence.

“When you fix something that’s broken, you don’t need a person to tell you did a good job,” he said.

To find out more about how to donate or volunteer, go to goodkarmabikes.org. 

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Trackbacks

  1. […] The popular weekly Saturday morning free bike repair clinics that previously were held near Diridon Station are now being offered at the new location at 345 Sunol St. Now instead of waiting in the sometimes harsh elements either standing or sitting on parking lot curbs while their bikes are repaired at no charge, clients wait sitting inside or under shade structures. […]

  2. […] With about 100 supporters looking on, San Jose District 3 City Councilmember Sam Liccardo hailed Gardner for being an innovator in his quest to lift people up from homelessness and joblessness through offering bike repairs and job training. […]