By Kara Witherow, Editor
At 5 p.m. each Tuesday and Wednesday, a crowd of young boys and girls waits eagerly for the door to the Learn and Earn Bike Shop to open. When it does they rush to their work stations, grab their wrenches, and get to work.
They’re there to earn bikes by putting in 10 hours of sweat equity into the Learn and Earn bicycle program, a youth training and mentoring program that’s a partnership between after-school program Campus Clubs and Nathan Watson, a member of Vineville United Methodist Church.
Vineville UMC members are deeply invested in the Pleasant Hill community, and the church even has a specific mission focus on the neighborhood called “PleasantVille Neighbors.” The congregation strives to be good neighbors by serving those who live in the community by mentoring neighborhood students, providing weekend meals through a Backpack Buddies program, cultivating and maintaining a community garden, and more.
“Pleasant Hill is our neighborhood, they’re our neighbors, and doing whatever we can to minister to them and let them know that God loves them in whatever way we can is important,” said Rev. Jon Brown, associate pastor at Vineville UMC and a Learn and Earn Bike Shop volunteer. “When the community flourishes, we flourish together. We’re not isolated.”
A tinkerer by nature, Watson has long loved rebuilding machines and works on 1960s and 1970s muscle cars as a hobby. He initially considered starting a car repair ministry but decided it would be too cost prohibitive. He then saw an online video showcasing a bicycle ministry in Atlanta. It, he thought, was doable, so he and his wife, Gina, traveled there to learn more about the program and glean ideas and tips.
Two years ago, Watson began the Learn and Earn Bike Shop in Macon, partnering with Campus Clubs, an after-school program that meets in Strong Tower Fellowship Church in Macon’s Pleasant Hill neighborhood. It was an ideal partnership, Watson said, since Pleasant Hill is in Vineville UMC’s backyard and already ministers with and to many of its residents.
Campus Clubs offers its students a robotics program and a music program, among other activities, and the bicycle ministry was a great addition, he said.
When they first begin, students work on small children’s bikes, learning how to change brake cables, brake pads, how to disassemble the chain, and how to change a flat tire. Once they complete those steps twice on a small bike they graduate to a 21-speed bike and do it all again, twice.
The program takes 10 hours to complete and, when done, students will have disassembled and put back together two bikes twice and then are able to choose a bike of their very own.
Receiving a bike may be the end goal for the students, but it’s not for Watson. In addition to learning goal setting, time management, and mechanics, they’re being empowered and feeling ownership over something.
“Our motto is ‘Way more than a bike’ because working towards something, a goal, is important,” he said. “10 hours is forever (to a child).”
A few months after Learn and Earn launched a fourth-grade student began working towards a free bike. After putting in his 10 hours he chose a small child’s bike, one much too small for him to ride. Instead of earning a bike for himself, he was working to give his younger brother a Christmas present.
Another student worked for about eight hours before realizing he was going to get a bike. When he began looking at the bikes to choose the one he wanted he said, “I’m never going to have to walk anywhere again!”
Watson could tell heartwarming stories like this all day, but he’d rather tinker with bikes and teach children how to fix a flat tire.
“To see all these kids light up when they earn their free bicycle is pretty cool,” he said.