Jean Wilson walked up the building she bought at 4135 Vermont just off Grand River in the Core City neighborhood. It would store the items she found around Detroit for her artwork.
As she approached the building she noticed a group of young kids playing and running round. Dozens of their bikes, many in disrepair or simply broken, were lined up on an old fence. Curious, they came up to her and asked what she was going to do with the building. They wanted a bike fix-it shop.
“The kids said ‘will you fix our bikes?’” Wilson says.
They told her they were from a big family with lots of cousins – 144 in all in their extended family – and most didn’t have bikes. “If the kids are related, the bike is borrowed and used up,” she says.
Just recovering from an illness, she was looking for something to boost her spirit.
“When the kids came to me I didn’t feel sick anymore,” she says. “That was the medicine I needed. I have an army of kids watching over me.”
Using the building just for her art went by the wayside, replaced by a bike shop. Wilson recruited volunteers, got bikes donated and fixed them up. WRENCH, a charitable effort that believes every child deserves a bike, was born.
“These kids not online 24/7,” she says. “They had nothing to do. Now they are always on bikes. They have a mini slow roll going on. The kids were so excited they started bike races.”
WRENCH operates out of the Core City neighborhood. Started in May 2014, it has supplied 340 donated bikes and repaired many more. It has held bike clinics in other Detroit neighborhoods with cooperation of the community. Now Wilson is looking to do more.
Her goal is to expand the WRENCH to more neighborhoods, create a city-wide effort, have regular open hours, hire staff and at least one bike mechanic.
“In order to do that we have to raise a little bit of money,” she says. “#GivingTuesday is the perfect time to help us improve and expand our efforts.”
Today, Wilson works with the 15th/16th Street Block Club and in Woodbridge Farms where she lives. You can also find WRENCH in a neighborhood west of the north end in the Elmhurst and Livernois area, where supporter Auntie Na lives.
Auntie Na’s house is a community outreach program that feeds, clothes shelters, educates and spreads the love. The Facebook page says “her door is open to humans and animals alike.” You can often find kids there.
“We come back for follow-ups to each neighborhood we service, establishing ongoing relationships with the communities we serve,” Wilson says.
Today, bikes have pretty much taken much of Wilson’s building. One of the two rooms is a bike shop. The other room is Jean’s Room and stores her art supplies. It is off limits to the kids. She’s not sure when she’ll get back to her artwork. Right now, getting kids bikes is her passion and she needs more volunteers to help fix the bikes.
“I want this to catch on,” she says. “If you come to Detroit, you repair bikes. I want it to be in vogue like helping with soup kitchens.”
WRENCH also needs bicycle tubes of all sizes. It’s the No. 1 operating expense. Wilson is also looking for usable parts and anything that can be used to fix bikes, such as tools, spray lubricant, chain lube, chain, tube repair kits, rust remover, rags, and so on. It also needs wood and hardware to build a loft for storage and a concrete floor in the shop room.
“In many neighborhoods in Detroit the children don’t have working bikes or a place to play outside,” WRENCH says. “Having the freedom to ride is still the best thing to a kid and gets them out exercising and enjoying themselves. We literally level the playground between the have and have nots. Can you imagine watching your friends roll off and your bike is broken or worse yet you never had one?”
Detroit is becoming known as great bike city and even made Bicycling’s list of The 50 Best Bike Cities of 2016.
“We are the bike culture, so let’s all join in,” says Wilson.
– Photos courtesy of WRENCH