Akwete Tynes rummages through a drawer of spare bike parts. Warm but soft-spoken, the 17-year-old from Regent Park wears her long black hair in dreads, tied back loosely.
She finds two matching brake arms from the heap of metal, rubber and wire, and shows them to the bike mechanic.
“You got a set now?” he asks. She nods and takes them over to her mauve bike frame, mounted on a repair stand. It has shocks above the front wheel, and curved handlebars, but no back wheel, brakes, pedals or seats.
She’s at a session of Charlie’s Freewheels, a six-week program where youth from Regent Park get an old bike, strip it of its parts, paint it and put it back together. By the end, they will likely know more about bike mechanics than most of the city’s cyclists.
Inspired by Charlie Prinsep, a bike aficionado who was hit and killed while cycling across the country in 2007 at 23 years old, Charlie’s Freewheels is in its second year.
“We wanted to do something for him,” says Emma McIlveen-Brown, a thin, energetic brunette, who had been a close friend of Prinsep. She joined forces with other friends of his to create the program.
Sessions take place at Bike Pirates, a volunteer-run bike repair workspace in the Junction, where, today, Tynes and five other youths are busy gathering spare parts and following instructions from the volunteer bike mechanic. At a kitchen in the back, McIlveen-Brown and another volunteer bake cookies for experimental ice cream sandwiches.
Tynes found out about Charlie’s Freewheels through Pathways to Education, a tutoring and support program in Regent Park.
“I like things that are hands-on,” she tells me when I ask why she applied. She studies at a technical high school, and plays bass guitar in her family’s funk band.
But the main reason? “You get a free bike!”
Her last bike was stolen, but she will be bringing this one up to the family’s apartment at night. Plus, the program provides a free lock (and helmet). She will also be able to repair it, although she’s not sure if she has all the tools at home.
That could soon change. Some graduates of the program are hoping to open a bike shop in Regent Park. They have the skills to fix bikes, the need for business opportunities and the desire to attract more people to their community.