There’s something about bicycling that creates a sense of community. Perhaps it’s because when people ride around town on a bicycle, you can actually see them as a real person instead of a shadow hiding in a big motorized box.
Maybe it’s also because all bicyclists are propelled by their own sweat and muscle power. There’s nothing elitist about that.
It was this allure of a common man with a broken bicycle that inspired Jack Hairston of West Palm Beach, Fla., to assist a bicyclist one day in front of his house.
Jack went into the garage, got some tools and started working. He fixed a bike and made a friend.
After that, several people came around Jack’s house seeking help with their bikes. Or advice and help on other matters.
Jack then realized how much of a need existed for just a simple bicycle for many families as their primary mode of transportation. He started fixing up old bikes and giving them away. He eventually filled up his entire backyard with bicycles and parts.
“I just wanted to make the community a little bit better,” he said.
A few reporters heard about his donations and covered the story. One gave him the moniker, “Jack the Bike Man.”
Fast forward 16 years later and Jack now circulates more than 5,000 bicycles from an enormous industrial warehouse, filled to the ceiling with bicycles of all types for his children’s bicycle charity. The facility also has a repair area, office, store and racks upon racks of tires and parts.
The bikes keep pouring in, he says. Every morning people will drop off a handful after cleaning out a shed or a garage. He has four full-time employees and a huge team of volunteers who then repair the bikes or dismantle them for the parts.
All year his team gathers bikes, repairs them and sells them. This activity is mainly conducted in anticipation of one day every year, just before Christmas, when hundreds of children get the opportunity to own their own bicycle for free. Jack and his crew will give away more than 1,000 bicycles that day.
For the event (he keeps the date confidential to limit the size of the crowds) he has a huge group of volunteers who help him. Many are local retirees. They match the children with the right bike for their size and then adjust it so it rides perfectly.
Jack the Bike Man works with churches and non-profit groups and counts on them to help determine the low income families and children who are genuinely down and out. He’s had people drive up to his warehouse in Cadillacs and Escalades asking for bikes, but prefers to reserve the gifts to the underprivileged who can’t afford a bike, let alone a car.
At times, when impoverished families can’t come to his place, he’ll go to theirs. One time he made a delivery of 30 bikes to children in Indiantown. He had information about the children prior to his visit so he was able to find the appropriate bicycle for their height and weight and he even added a tag with each of their names on the bike.
“We try to do it just right,” Jack said. He pointed out that the children really when thrilled when they saw a bike with their name on it. Made it a more personalized, special experience for them.
It’s not just children and teens who receive Jack’s bikes. If a homeless person or a grown-up from a halfway house comes up asking for a bicycle to get around town, Jack offers them one. As long they spend time working in his shop to repair or clean bicycles.
Some youngsters just walk up and say, “Hey, give me a bike.”
Not so easy. Jack tells them first they will need to work on three bikes. One is for the warehouse. Then Jack asks them if they have a friend who might need a bike. The second bike repaired will be for that person. The youngster then gets to keep the third one after he’s earned it.
Jack also makes a point to teach children how to maintain their bicycles and make simple repairs.
“The idea is that they will then take care of it a lot longer,” he explained.
Generally once a year Jack the Bike Man receives coverage by the local newspapers and TV stations on the day of his massive bike giveaway.
But when you visit his warehouse, you can see that it takes quite a bit of effort every day of the year to make this happen.
Space is always a concern. Jack is constantly on the move, trying to find adequate storage for all the bicycles that are donated. He once kept them in his backyard, but then people kept hopping over the fence and stealing the inventory to sell for drugs.
He’s moved around town a few times. Sometimes he finds cheap space in places, but they are generally in areas with high crime rates. One day, he was attacked after receiving a call that people were breaking into his warehouse. He suffered a broken nose, broken wrist, lost a few teeth and a pair of glasses.
But that didn’t stop him.
Raising money is the big challenge
While people donate many bikes, many of them need repairs. That requires a paid staff. Jack also buys thousands of new tires every year and thousands of bicycle helmets. You can repair most old bikes, but you really can’t repair worn out tires.
The kids need helmets. As any bicyclist knows, it can be dangerous out there. Florida streets are some of the worst in the nation for injuries and the state leads in the number of bicycle deaths.
Jack said, “I’m just tired of all these (bike) accidents.”
The charity also supplies locks. There’s nothing worse than seeing the joy in a kid’s eyes when he or she gets a bike, only to have it disappear when the bike is stolen later.
To generate funds to pay for all this, Jack sells many of the bicycles.
He’s got quite the inventory too. Not just used beat-up bikes, but some genuinely great cycling treasures. There’s a whole row of cool vintage bicycles, like a 1950 Raleigh or an antique Huffy. While there, a repairman was seen refurbishing a gorgeous, classic Schwinn.
There is also an array of quality mountain bikes, beach cruisers and some high-end racing bikes – even with titanium and carbon frames. Fantastic stuff!
Another way Jack the Bike Man brings in revenue is to provide bike repair services. He’s open seven days a week and a steady stream of supporters continually bring in their bikes to be fixed.
No one including Jack knows how long he will keep this up. He’s certainly touched a lot of lives. While there are plenty of hardship cases for bikes in a county of 1 million residents, Jack has also donated hundreds of bicycles to people in places like Haiti or Guatemala. People around the world all have a need to get around.
He’s also touched the lives of many people who have come to work for him in the warehouse. In a way, it’s become a home for people uncertain about what to do with their lives. Jack welcomes them in and gives them a job to occupy their time while they sort things out.
“What else would I be doing?” he asked. “I might as well help the kids. I’m broke so I don’t have any money to spend on anything else. This keeps me busy.”
As bicyclists know, there’s something magical about a bicycling community.
Jack the Bike Man, who you could say has a wizardly look about him, has been on one heck of a ride providing wheels and pedals to thousands of people who can’t afford a bicycle. There certainly is something enchanting about that.
To learn more about his non-profit bicycle charity, to donate a bike or to buy a bike (again, there are some real finds in his shop), go to www.jackthebikeman.org. His number is 561-832-0071.
(Top Photo: Pictured above is Jack Hairston (left) and Patrick Halliday of The Bike Rack Co. The Bike Rack Co. donated three bike racks to the “JackTheBikeMan.org” charity.)