By Jana Mackin
Carolina barbecue, salvaged bikes and repurposed lives highlighted a grassroots fundraiser that raised several thousand dollars for a local charity that helps adults with disabilities pedal toward hope, independence and pride.
During the day-long event in Wilmington, Special Pedals set up their pop up bike shop on a staff member’s front lawn and raised nearly $4,000 for the non-profit bike shop that offers bike mechanic training and employment to special needs adults. Staffed with mechanics, volunteers, family and friends, the Special Pedals fundraiser offered bike mechanic service, sales and BBQ slow-cooked for some 14 hours.
The fundraiser’s proceeds and donations doubled the charity’s projected goal to cover overhead costs, including rent, truck maintenance, inventory, tools, training and other expenses. Leah Sherrill, the non-profit’s founder, said the donations will help build a community where all adults with disabilities can be employed at jobs that offer equal hours, pay and quality of life.
“It’s an educational opportunity for adults with disabilities to learn to work on bikes, sell bikes and parts, make a little money and learn mechanic and social skills,” said Sherrill, a special education teacher. “It’s huge for them. It gives them a real sense of pride when they get something that didn’t work, that nobody could ride, then get it to work and see someone ride it.”
As founder and board president, Sherrill said that the non-profit aims to provide fulfilling training and employment opportunities for adults with wide-range of disabilities post high-school graduation. The program provides offers individualized training to develop skills to become a bike mechanic. They rely on donated bikes that the mechanics refurbish and resell. They also create and sell art from recycled bike parts. Special Pedals operates out of a storage building and a mobile, 21-foot box truck that is set up as a pop-up bike shop in the community where the mechanics’ skills are showcased and social and entrepreneurial skills developed.
Since its inception in 2015, Special Pedals has evolved from what Sherrill, then a UNCW student, envisioned as idea to a now fully operational mobile bike enterprise that employs five adults with disabilities as bicycle mechanics.
“It can’t get more grassroots,” said John Pesackis, bike mechanic, mentor and volunteer. “It’s blown up since it started three years ago. It’s so nice to see somebody accomplishing something.”
While a UNCW special education student, Sherrill came up with the idea while working with Stephanie Glatt, who had moderate disabilities and was having problems finding employment. Out of Glatt’s frustration and inability to find jobs that matched her abilities, Sherrill was inspired to create the concept of a bike shop as way to train and employ adults with disabilities. Glatt who had displayed bicycle repair aptitude became the first mechanic and still works at Special Pedals.
“We couldn’t find me a job,” said Glatt. “Nobody was hiring people with disabilities.”
Now, she said, “I get to meet new people, work on their bikes, fix tires and grips and gears.”
Throughout the summer, Special Pedals will set up their pop-up bike shop at regular locations throughout the community as well as special appearances such as at Wilmington Brewing Company the second Saturday of every month. Summer is prime time for Special Pedals to perform bike outreach, sales and mechanic services. During the rest of the year, project staff educate and train adults with disabilities to become bike mechanics.
“Come and checks us out. We are delighted to have you come by. Check us out and be a part of our family,” said Mike Lowery, among the first trained mechanics. “We need money, bikes, volunteers, tools and a new, big air compressor.”
The organization is actively seeking skilled bicycle mechanics to volunteer and teach their students. Further, they are looking to find a location where they can work out of a stable facility as well as provide a mobile bike shop as part of the charity’s ongoing local efforts to assist and improve the lives of adults with disabilities.
“I’m Mike, the tire man. I like fixing tires. It takes a lot of energy to be a tire man,” Lowery said. “I had never worked on a bike. I never had time. Now we have so much to do. We meet a lot of people and we just mesh. We’re one big happy family.”