Open Roads opens doors for Kalamazoo's young people

Ethan Alexander, founder and executive director of Open Roads, suspects his father's choice to get rid of the family car may have had something to do with Ethan's grandfather getting hit and killed by a car. Whatever his reasons, when Ethan and his brother were small boys, the car disappeared from the driveway and bicycles took its place.    
"Dad was a single parent, wanting a simple life," Alexander says. "He had us all on bikes 12 months out of the year, didn't matter the weather. Bikes were an essential part of my growing up."
A look of pride passes over Alexander's face. His father, now 74, still doesn't own a car. Alexander does, and he says about that: "I guess I'm not as brave or crazy as my father."
But Alexander has other achievements to his name. He has Open Roads. A basement full of adopted bicycles turned into a non-profit organization--and he still is an avid bike rider, even if he does drive a car to his job as positive behavior support specialist at KRESA (Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency). 
"My wife suggested I do something about all the bikes that had accumulated in our basement," he says, smiling. A Kalamazoo Community Foundation grant through its ChangeMakers program, Alexander says, helped him make that change, and Open Roads was born in 2009 with a mission to teach youth social and bike mechanic skills as a way to prepare them for life.    
"I put my passions and my interests together," Alexander says, and Open Roads was the result. A youth development program, Open Roads donates bikes to young people as they learn how to fix them. In learning how to fix a broken bike, as Alexander has often witnessed, these young people learn how to fix some of their own broken places. Alexander runs the program with Jason Roon, head mechanic, and Eric Clark, social skills instructor, and an advisory board. 
"We don't teach kids just how to pedal faster," he says. "We teach them skills that may just lead to their first job as a mechanic, or as a sales person. Maybe they will work in a bike shop."
Open Roads draws kids, and adults, too, every Monday night from May to October, and they call it Fixapalooza. Dozens of kids show up, Alexander says, and as many or more adults, volunteers and those who want to earn their way to their own wheels. As they gather and work on the bikes, kids learn how to interact with each other, how to ask for help when they need it, how to apologize when they botch things up. They learn how to share, and they learn how to listen. Self-respect rises as they master a new skill. 
"At the end of the day, it's not about bikes as much as it's about empowering kids to make better choices," Alexander says. "Kids on bikes are less likely to be bored, and that means they are less likely to get involved in criminal activity."
Alexander plans to take that thought with him as he begins a new spoke of outreach--working with the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home this fall. Open Roads will take an eight-week program to the youth at the juvenile home, bringing all the needed tools and bikes to work on, and at the end of the course, the youth will have earned bikes of their own. 
"Think of it this way: a bike becomes a vehicle for positive change," Alexander says. "We use a system we call ROADS. That stands for Respect, Own your actions, Attitude counts, Discipline, Safety."
Grown-ups have plenty to learn, too. As Alexander has observed, "Americans have a love affair with the automobile. We spend a third of our incomes on our cars. I've been talking to some movers and shakers. We'd like to make Kalamazoo into a more bike-friendly city."
Alexander calls it a movement, and he likens the future he wants to see for a bike-friendly Kalamazoo as something akin to what can be seen in Amsterdam or London, or even New York City, where people often use public transportation, or share cars that can be rented for the short term and dropped off anywhere in the city. In Alexander's dream, there would be similar hubs for bikes. Pick them up, ride them, drop them off. 
"Imagine instead of fighting traffic, that you would find a clear bike path," Alexander says. "Imagine not fighting for parking. Riding safe and happy." He smiles. 
It's all a little vague still, he says, but discussions are happening, local businesses are talking and considering a cleaner, more sustainable, two-wheeling community lifestyle for Kalamazoo.  "And all those bikes will need to be repaired and maintained."
All the young people at Open Roads will know just what to do when that day comes. The dream lights up Alexander's eyes. He's been working in neighborhood one-car garages so far, fixing bikes where he finds them. For the kind of movement he's talking about, Open Roads will need a place of its own. That dream, he says, is about to come true. 
Kalamazoo Land Bank is planning a $1.5 million development project off Riverview Drive, bordering the Kalamazoo Valley River Trail, and they are partnering with Open Roads and the Michigan State University Extension Programs. Of the several organizations slated to tie into the project, Open Roads will have their offices located in the new development. Alexander glows as he speaks of it: Open Roads with a place of its own.         
"We'll be adjacent to the trail," he says, "a perfect location."
What gets Alexander excited about getting bikes into the hands of kids, and getting kids with their greasy hands on bikes is how that connection opens roads.
 "We're most popular with kids around age 15," Alexander says. "Before they can drive, but when they want to get out into the world on their own. These kids rarely experience the world outside their neighborhoods. Bikes open that up for them." 
In 2012, Open Roads served more than 200 kids. Alexander's father, still riding his bike, is surely proud. 
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.          

Photos by Erik Holladay
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