New Lives for Old Bikes

Each year, Chicago-based Working Bikes collects thousands of used bikes and sends them to partner organizations in Africa and Latin America. There, bike mechanics are trained, bikes are refurbished and local residents get critical personal transportation. Jay Shefsky visited Working Bikes and helped pack a shipping container. 

Sammie Lemon poses for a picture with the bike he received through Working Bikes.Sammie Lemon said he used to “thumb his nose” at homeless people — until he found himself on the streets right alongside them.

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“Being without [housing] was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “It strengthened me and gave me some power that I didn’t even know I had.”

Lemon now serves as part of the tenant leadership with Mercy Housing, a national nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing to neighborhoods in need. He was introduced to it via one of the shelters he stayed at while homeless.

“Coming from the streets to an organized situation, it’s kind of like a cultural shock all over again,” he said.

Mercy Housing offers a number of support programs to its residents, including computer classes, art therapy, and gardening. Lemon participates in the “feel better program,” which is how he got his bike from Working Bikes.

Lemon goes jogging, but likes cycling because it’s a different way to get himself moving. He had previously been riding a bike without brakes, and calls his new wheels “a blessing.”

“It’s a little taller, it fits me better,” he said.

His new ride also has a rack on it, which helps with doing laundry and grocery shopping since he no longer has to tote things in his hands.

To go with his new-and-improved ride, Lemon got a map of bike routes from the Daley Center and has been riding all over the city — from the North Side to Englewood.

A friend of Lemon’s that came with him to Mercy Housing from the same homeless shelter also received a bike, and Lemon said he can see the happiness on his friend’s face.

“We do really appreciate a lot of the things that are coming our way since being homeless,” he said.

Lemon has been giving back to the community through his role in tenant leadership, helping out in his own building and starting a block clean-up two months ago. He hopes to raise awareness about the benefits of cycling, such as cutting down on pollution.

“Pollution is one of the main sources, especially here in Chicago, of cancer [and] lung disease,” he said. “So hopefully more people in the future ride bikes.”

Lemon also wants to teach young people about the importance of bike safety after seeing many local children riding without helmets or reflectors.

Currently living in the Roseland neighborhood, Lemon hopes to see improvements to the community’s infrastructure in order to achieve his goals.

“People are not aware. They have TVs and stuff but you have to be more hands on,” he said. “I feel that if they bring more bikes and a park within the neighborhood, or a community center, we can offer the programs … that I prospered from.”

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