Freewheeling’s social impact on disadvantaged youth growing fast

Many youth hindered by physical or intellectual disabilities, autism or other troubles are often left to their own devices in homes that provide little stimulation, remedial care, social interaction or means to develop abilities.

Freewheeling is a social-development non-profit organization born in late 2015 (see May 2016 Tempo). It first focussed on unlocking potentials through the teaching of bicycle mechanics to disadvantaged kids and youth as a means of helping them acquire abilities and develop social skills. Through the refurbishing, repair and maintenance of various types of bicycles under close supervision, freewheelers give them a new life, achieve personal tangible results, such as the pride of a job well done and the blossoming of self-esteem.

One early result, in December 2016, was the awarding to Freewheeling of the top prize À Part entière given by the provincial government to a non-profit organization centred on social-inclusion programs, which came with a $10,000 cheque.

By April 2017, 82 school-age mechanics and young adults from 16 Brome-Missisquoi municipalities, including eight from Tempo’s readership area, had cut their teeth in mechanics and attended workshops under the expert guidance of 12 full time volunteer staff. Freewheeling is headed by director general Stéphan Marcoux, a professional cyclist with nearly 30 years of road-racing experience and 25 in recreational therapy, and Myriam de Coussergues, assistant DG and special-care counsellor.

Many of the participants are referred by four secondary schools, six primary ones and a rehab centre.

Before and after: Transformation of Branden’s “Beach Cruiser” bicycle

What started with bicycles has rapidly expanded to activities such as woodworking, grape harvesting and the fabrication of bird houses with professional tools (band saw, planer, drill press and such, a $30,000 equipment donation from General Tools Canada). Financial help also came from a $15,000 Pacte rural grant to launch a birdhouse project and $7000 from Canadian Tire.

Activities presenting hazards are closely supervised and preceded by safety training and first-aid instruction.

Furthermore, there is harvesting at the Orpailleur vineyard and the installation of bird houses which help control nasty insects thus reducing the use of pesticides by 70%. Next will come horse-fly catchers and a raised-bed garden.

Overall, through guidance, team work and achievements, many new mechanics get out of their shells, work in teams of two, acquire technical and social skills and are challenged out of their comfort zone at a rate that has exceeded expectations, said founding members Mike and Brian Herman. Other board members are Anne Stairs, principal of Heroes Memorial school, Sharon Dawe, a lifelong business-development professional, and Louise Penny, of Gamache fame.

Freewheeling is financed by donations and receives gifts of tired bicycles, some looking like candidates for the rubbish heap. Many of them come from ecocentres or remnants of garage sales, as well as from the purchase of the Turcotte bicycle shop, in Dunham, and its lot of bicycles and gobs of spare parts as a bonus. Some bikes only need a serious cleaning and tuneup, others a complete rebuild with spare parts. On average, half a dozen are made roadworthy per day, for distribution to schools kids. More than 300 have been donated to schools as complete sets to encourage supervised phys. ed. riding and healthy doses of exercise. The Cree Schoolboard has already received 75 refurbished bikes, and Freewheeling is working at offering a week-long workshop up there to teach mechanical and maintenance skills to native students. In all, some 550 bicycles have been distributed to schools and individuals.

Recently, an in-house bicycle shop was opened at Freewheeling, 135 Dean St. Cowansville, to offer repairs and tune-ups to citizens at large, and to sell some finely restored bicycles.