Front Yard Bikes teaching lessons much greater than bicycle maintenance

Front Yard Bikes teaching lessons much greater than bicycle maintenance
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Saturday, August 24, 2013 - 2:05pm

A large group of kids flocks to a rundown building in South Baton Rouge a couple days a week.

They hang out with a teacher and repair old bicycles. But they learn about much more than just how to fix a bike.

"Bicycles just happen to be our bridge, that's our common ground," Dustin LaFont said. "And I really don't know how to explain how much they love it and how much I love it."

LaFont was asked by a friend three years ago to help a young boy fix his bicycle.

"It just was so destroyed, so in pieces, it wasn't going to happen," LaFont said. "I mean, he had a tire with no... a rim with no tire, no inner tube, nothing."

Rejay Wilson's bike was beyond repair, but LaFont's former roommate left one behind. He told Wilson that if they worked on it together, he could keep it. Soon after, Wilson brought his relatives and friends to LaFont's front yard with their own bicycles.

"When they see me," Wilson said, "me going places and coming back with different bikes, they asked me where to go. And I was like, 'just come with me,' and brought them all over to Dustin's house."

"One day, I went out to my front yard and I had 15 kids," LaFont remembered, "and I was like, 'God, why is this happening? Why are all these kids coming here, what's going on?'"

LaFont and the children worked in his front yard for the better part of two years. His landlord asked him to stop, because he had liability concerns. Eventually, the landlord suggested a vacant building down the street. With the help of a friend in the insurance business, LaFont signed a lease and opened Front Yard Bikes last December.

Front Yard Bikes is a business in a loose sense. There is no cash register, no employees, and no utilities. Twice a week, LaFont and his wife Kimberly unlock the doors, and watch the kids ride up, one, two at a time, until dozens have asked for help restoring their bicycles.

They learn mechanical skills, but the education goes far beyond bike maintenance.

"When they clean up this place and when they are part of making it work, it's just really a beautiful thing, to see them take ownership over what they're doing and ownership of their actions," LaFont stated.

Three years after they first met, Wilson is one of the kids taking ownership of Front Yard Bikes. LaFont asks them to open and close the shop, and to keep track of all its tools and parts. They also mentor the youngest children, showing them the proper way to maintain their bicycles.

"It reminds me of my first time working on a bike," said Wilson, now 14 years old, "so I feel happy."

LaFont said that some of the neighborhood children used to steal bicycles when theirs would break, sometimes going to LSU to take bikes from campus. But he has noticed many of them change their attitudes and their behaviors.

"We now hear the kids, they say, 'yes, sir, no sir,'" LaFont claimed. "They say, 'thank you.' And we have built a relationship with them."

LaFont, a teacher at Westdale Middle School, does not stop teaching when class lets out, nor does he stop teaching when the children's bicycles are fixed. He leads group rides to show them how far their bikes can take them.

"We'd go to libraries, to parks, to the Capitol, just to go ride up to the top," he said,  "[to] show them who Huey P. Long was."

The rides and the time at the shop are important to the kids. Wilson said he visits Front Yard Bikes nearly every time it opens, because there are not many places in the neighborhood for he and his friends to go.

"Not no more, since they started working on (BREC Roosevelt Street) Park," he mentioned. "And everybody has just been coming over here."

Recently, the East Baton Rouge Metro Council recognized LaFont, Wilson, and some of the other children for the positive influence Front Yard Bikes has had on the neighborhood.

"For me, that was the Metro Council recognizing in them what I saw on the first day when I met them," LaFont said, "is that these kids were incredible and they're capable of great things, and that they're God's kids. They could do anything, and that we believed in that from Day One. And here they are, Metro Council now saying, 'yes, they're incredible, we recognize them.'

"I told them when I gave them the certificates, 'guys, this is not new. This is not new to me. I've known this. And here you are, showing the rest of the city, finally, who you really are.'"

They've grown from the front yard to a real shop, but they want to keep growing.

LaFont has spoken with LSU about a possible partnership. Not because he wants new customers, but because he wants to create new experiences.

"And that will get our kids exposed to people who are academians," he said of his vision. "And then they can talk and mentor each other. And these college kids will see, 'this is the neighborhood I'm living in. This is the people who live here when I go home.' And the kids could say, 'look at these kids who aren't much older than me. And look what they're doing in the university. Maybe I can do that.'"

Wilson said he hopes to work at Front Yard Bikes for years to come.

"I want it to be like a working bike shop," he stated, "where all of us kids can help the LSU kids, the students, to fix their bikes."

LaFont plan involves becoming a larger part of the neighborhood's social fabric.

"We really hope to do an after-school tutoring program every day," he said. "We want to get this building with water and electricity, so that we can do a Bible study for some of our older kids, or do youth programs for our older kids at night, inside of a lit place and make it more of a safe place at night.

"We hope for big things. And this has obviously been much bigger than we dreamed, you know, a front yard to here. But it's an incredible experience and we're extremely honored."

Front Yard Bikes is open Tuesday and Friday from 3:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. and is located at 974 W. Roosevelt Street..

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