Alex Lai didn’t even know how to change a flat tire on her bicycle when she first joined Wheels for Winners as a Badger Volunteer during her first year of graduate school at UW-Madison.
East Madison nonprofit organization Wheels for Winners, which first opened its doors 23 years ago, rewards bicycles to young people with strong records of community service — but, as Lai found, the work was just as rewarding for her.
“I’m not a pro yet by any means, but I can build a bike from start to finish,” explained Lai, who has now volunteered with the organization for a year and a half. “It’s really satisfying, it can be transformative in a big way.”
Every Tuesday evening this semester, Lai works with a small team of current Badger Volunteers along with several other dedicated volunteers of all ages and skill levels.
“Without volunteers, we don’t operate,” said Richard Castelnuovo, who has volunteered with Wheels for Winners for over 10 years. “Not a lot of charities can persist on our small operating budget.”
According to Castelnuovo, it was difficult to pay even one full-time staff member on top of operational expenses. The work is currently done entirely by several dedicated volunteers of all skill levels, who can commit at least two hours of work each week. These volunteers repaired and gave out over 180 bicycles to deserving youth in 2014, contributing more than 1,600 total workshop hours.
Hopeful bicycle recipients are required to submit a written record of at least 15 hours of community service verified by a partner organization. This community engagement requirement ensures meaningful long-term connections with young members of the community as well as valuable organizational partnerships, especially with similar organizations like west Madison non-profit DreamBikes. In the words of Castelnuovo, recipients come to understand that “it’s not a free bike, it’s an earned bike,” and the service lends greater meaning to their reward.
Board president Steven Bagwell, who has volunteered with Wheels for Winners for six years, can recall several experiences where children who grew out of their earned bicycles returned to the workshop to not only return their old bicycles, but also demonstrated that they had performed additional community service sufficient to earn a larger bicycle.
According to Bagwell, the organization not only saves hundreds of bicycles from landfills, but also reaches out to underserved East Madison communities to provide an easy and healthy transportation option. Those who need these options in Madison are rarely those that have access to them.
Bagwell also hopes that the work has a “seeding function” for volunteers. UW-Madison students in particular get to see and understand the needs of an area in which they may never have set foot, and reinforce the connection of the campus to these communities.
“There’s a real danger of the university being isolated from the town, according to Bagwell, who also works at the School of Medicine and Public Health. “I’ve seen in the volunteers that come over from the Morgridge Center that this is a real way for them to connect to the east side.”
Current Badger Volunteers Tim Koll, Michelle Duren, and team leader Yi Cui are already each building their third or fourth bicycles of the semester, and say their rapid progress also lends greater meaning to their own experiences.
Cui, Duren and Koll are three of nearly 700 UW-Madison students volunteering with Badger Volunteers through the Morgridge Center for Public Service this semester in areas of sustainability, health and education.
Koll, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering, used to work in a bicycle repair shop and enjoys the opportunity to apply his knowledge. “I’ve always been interested in how things work, and bikes always kind of fascinated me, so it’s cool to give back too,” said Koll.
An avid cyclist as well as a graduate student pursuing international public affairs, Duren said she enjoys learning more about bicycle repair and observing the “ground-level operations” of a non-profit organization.
Lai explains that her decision to continue beyond her semester with Badger Volunteers was “not totally altruistic. It’s so fun…I look forward to working and I’m also learning a ton.”
Above all, Castelnuovo, Bagwell and other long-time volunteers care about building a community around a fun and meaningful work experience.
“If you can’t enjoy this, then we’re not doing something right,” said Bagwell. “We’re a pretty close community.”
For his first semester as a Badger Volunteer, that sense of community has been the most worthwhile aspect of Koll’s work so far. “We take an interest in each other…and it’s nice to have people that care what you’re doing each week,” he said.
Although students are encouraged to work for the organization beyond the end of their semester, Bagwell said he is satisfied if the work inspires students to apply their experiences to other underserved communities in need of the model or idea of Wheels for Winners.
“This town opens up when you’re on foot and on bike,” said Bagwell. “It really makes no sense not to get as many young people thinking that way as possible…and if we’re not doing this work, no one is.”