April 21, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Charles Mitchell has never driven a car.  He doesn’t even have a license.

Why not slow life down a bit and experience the outdoors instead?

So he bikes.

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It’s a challenge and there is no temptation to take it easy.  Plus, it is cheaper and healthier.

Even on the coldest days, Mitchell will put on ski goggles, throw on double layers of everything, and decide which one of his nine bicycles he feels like taking for a ride. “Every time I get on a bike, I get excited,” Mitchell says. Mitchell pedals at least 10 hours a week, sometimes making multiple trips to the grocery store.  His longest distance was 170 miles during an endurance challenge, and he used to commute on bike from Lincoln to Omaha for work.

Mitchell shares his love of all things bicycles with Omaha children at the Community Bike Project at 535 N. 33rd St., something he has been doing the past year and a half.

The Community Bike Project was started when a Creighton nursing student, Emerick Huber, saw people on broken bicycles in the Gifford Park area. The neighborhood was working to overcome a reputation of being the source of too many police reports, and Huber saw the capacity to turn a negative into a positive. The landlords gave Huber’s organization the building space for $1 a year and the bike-op was born.

The light blue door, filled with hastily scrawled signatures, is open on a sunny wintery afternoon. To the left—in bright green, orange, and pink—are seven rules including “Be respectful,” “Put things away,” and “Have fun.” Rule No. 5 is interesting: “You must be sober.”

“One of the strengths of this place is the diversity,” Mitchell says. “We teach and learn from each other, how to positively deal with everyone who comes in through the shop.”

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There are youngsters of all ages smiling with bikes in photographs along another wall. They earned their BMX or 10-speed through the Earn-A-Bike program. Rows upon rows of bicycles are just waiting for someone to own in the basement, donated by people who no longer needed one or have just outgrown their bike. Then anyone, adults included, can fix one up and take it home after completing six sessions and a safety class.

“The really amazing fact is that all kids that are here want to be here,” Mitchell adds.

Chance Williams, 12, built a BMX but has stayed for the past two years as a volunteer.

“It just gets me out of the house and it is fun to help out in the community,” Chance says.

He recently took part in an obstacle course contest. Chance tied for first place so has earned his right to new pedals or grips. He really wants gloves, though, since they are difficult to get. He is hoping Mitchell may be able to work something out.

“I want to be like the one that goes around doing tricks like X Games tricks on BMX’s,” Chance says.

Mitchell has already taught him bunny hops and wheelies, always reminding Chance to put on elbow and knee pads. Mitchell was patient during training, but Chance boasts it was pretty easy to learn.

“Kids look up to him (Mitchell),” volunteer Bob Greene says. “He dedicated his time to working here and helping kids get off the streets.”

Chance is also taking part in the youth study hall at the Yates Community Center for homework help. This was started by former volunteers who are now in high school who wanted more decision-making in how the shop functioned and looked. “It’s an amazing thing that you wouldn’t think kids would want to instigate themselves,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell, who has a master’s degree in fine arts, believes “academia is a cloistered environment.” Students who get suspended or just don’t do well in school can excel in the open shop environment working with their hands.

Mitchell pauses to help a group of girls with a coral-colored bicycle, instructing one of them to clean a greasy looking part. “I’d ride this bike,” Mitchell comments while the girls laugh.

If someone doesn’t have time to commit to a program, there are inexpensive bikes on sale anywhere from $30 to $300. Or people can come in for help to fix a tire, pedal, or chain during open shop days. Donations are always welcome, but not expected.

“My passion for this place is based on the idea that every single bike ride can be a lot of fun,” Mitchell says.

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