Some Dallas County jail inmates help fix donated bicycles
DALLAS (AP) — Dallas County inmate Eliza Zabaleta gushes when Roy Love, a detention services officer, places a small pink bicycle over a repair stand. Disney princesses adorn the frame, which reads “Magnificent Beauty” in capital letters.
“Aw!” says Zabaleta, picturing her little niece one day riding a bike like this one. “This is cute.”
The Dallas Morning News reports the pink handlebars are faded, and the tires with heart-shaped grooves look more gray than the original white. Zabaleta — who was jailed in July on an unauthorized use of a motor vehicle charge — studies the bike and starts her work, spraying the body with a cleaning solution and scrubbing it until it shines.
The Dallas County jail, a boxy complex of maze-like towers secured by guards and metal gates, is no wish factory, no home for playthings. But in this room, men and women in jumpsuits transform discarded bikes into gifts for strangers — children and adults in the outside world with hardships of their own.
All year long, the workshop hums with inmates learning how to test brakes, grease chains and replace tires. Together, their gloved hands churn out about 200 bikes annually. When Christmas season hits, class time goes on longer so that more kids can get bikes.
Many of the recipients are Dallas Independent School District students. Sometimes, Sheriff Marian Brown makes the deliveries, like she did in September at Dade Middle School. Other bikes go to refugee families and abused children through nonprofits like Dallas Buckner Center for Humanitarian Aid and Jonathan’s Place.
And some end up with inmates as a new means of transportation when they’re released from jail.
Yolanda Lara, the county’s director of inmate programs, said that’s why the bike workshop opened three years ago. The jail received questions from inmates asking for help getting to homeless shelters. Now inmates can file a request for a bicycle ahead of their release, and, if approved, the bike will be ready for pickup at the jail’s office of religious services.
Most of the bikes in the workshop are donations from Richardson Bike Mart and include popular brands like Schwinn and Huffy. Though a few have to be dismantled for parts or rebuilt entirely, many just need a tuneup and a good cleaning.
“These bikes are nice,” Lara said. “They’re not raggedy bikes.”
The workshop also counts on the generosity of jailers, police and everyday people. Love, the detention services officer, said two women in Tarrant County — who learned about the jail program through TV news — collected 17 bikes from people they knew.
Love, whose career at the Dallas County jail spans three decades, has no formal training in bike repair. Much of the knowledge he imparts to inmates he picked up as a kid on the driveway of his childhood home in Pleasant Grove, where his dad taught him to work on cars and bicycles.
“I’ve done everything on bicycles myself,” he said. “I don’t even remember how old I was when I finally got a brand new bike. Everything that I had was usually pieced together by old torn-up bikes.”
Most of Love’s students learn basic bike maintenance, but some take a more intensive class on how to put a bike together from scratch. The officer works with three to five inmates at a time.
The basic skills may not lead to new jobs, but Love said he expects his students will be able to fix their children’s bikes or help other neighborhood kids.
Most inmates are welcome in the workshop. But those facing violent charges are not allowed near tools for safety reasons, Lara said.
On a recent Friday, inmates Patricia Greer and Rosario Cervantes teamed up to fix a pair of bicycles. They spun the tires and squeezed the brake levers to see if they worked. Love directed them to check the sides of the tires for the recommended air pressure.
“I have two younger children who are boys, so it’ll be fun to teach them what I’ve learned,” Cervantes said.
She pointed to a little blue bike lying on its side.
“Yesterday, it was filled with mud,” she said. “Patricia cleaned it up really good. It almost looks brand new.”
Zabaleta said she’s headed to a six-month drug rehabilitation program after her release. She’s looking forward to reuniting with her nephews and niece.
“They’re always asking me if I can help them fix their things, their toys,” she said.
Now she can.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com