Mark Kennedy: Have bikes, will travel. White Oak group refurbishes two-wheelers for people in need

·3 min read

Jun. 6—A couple of years ago, Blake Pierce noticed a 10- or 11-year-old boy in his Red Bank neighborhood with worn-out sneakers.

"Why? Because he didn't have brakes on his bike," explained Pierce, who noticed the boy dragging his feet to slow down. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I've got to do something about that."'

So, without fanfare, Pierce took a pink, 20-inch bicycle that had belonged to his daughter and repainted it crimson and white because he knew the boy was a University of Alabama football fan.

"I made it look nice so he would have no idea that it was a girl's bike," said Pierce, a bicycle enthusiast who teaches exercise science and public health classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "That was a couple of years ago, but it really stuck with me."

Then, during COVID-19 isolation last year, Pierce had an epiphany: Why not use his extra time at home to recycle bicycles for people in need?

"I had my 'ah-ha' moment," he said. "Chattanooga is an outdoors city. There are a lot of bicycles sitting around. Is there a way we can pull this together and make an impact?"

He said he got a boost in December from a feature story about the effort broadcast on a local television station. When e-mails started hitting his inbox after the TV piece, Pierce said, he put on a mask, hopped into his Honda Element and hit the road to collect donated bikes. He also began assembling a team of friends to help with the refurbishing.

The result is a thriving huddle of bike enthusiasts called the White Oak Bicycle Co-op that recycles and refurbishes bikes in a converted garage behind Pierce's cottage-style house in Red Bank.

The group, which consists of about a dozen volunteers and has 501(c) nonprofit status, has a goal of placing a bike a week into good hands. So far in 2021, the co-op has repaired and placed 28 bikes, putting them on pace to exceed their target.

They accept donated bikes, fix the fixable ones and disassemble the hopeless ones for parts. On Monday nights about 10-15 friends gather in Pierce's back yard to work on the bicycles. It's a joyous gathering, Pierce said.

"Monday nights are our shop nights," Pierce explained. "We pull everything out and work. We will have a meal and talk about what's going on in the organization."

The group has also started taking its operation on the road. One weekend last month, the co-op set up shop at White Oak Park in Red Bank to repair bikes, accept donations and to pair some of their re-worked bikes with new owners.

The group includes a data analyst, a TVA engineer, a human resources manager and a physical therapist, among others. One member of the group used to work at a bike shop at Telluride, Colorado.

So far, the group has managed to gather donations and place their refurbished bikes through word of mouth. Local bike shops, including East Ridge Bicycles and Suck Creek Cycle, have helped steer people with donatable bikes to the White Oak Co-Op. East Ridge Bicycles has also become a drop point for people who want to donate bikes to the group.

Co-op members have become so adept at recycling parts that the group's only expenses are typically for chains and tires that are beyond repair. So far all the refurbished bikes have been given away free to needy riders. The group does take cash donations to help buy parts. (Search whiteoakbicycles.org for more information.)

They have a $100 bill displayed in the garage, an emergency fund that reminds them to stay frugal.

"I tell them if we spend that $100, we're in trouble," Pierce said.

So far, there hasn't been a need to break the bill.

Life Stories publishes on Mondays. To suggest a human interest story contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.