KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Ben Alexander grew up in Shawnee, but you wouldn’t always find him there.
More likely, he’d be exploring in Kansas City, Mo., checking out the rural parts of the area, or heading to the Kansas River.
“I would ride my junky little bike all over the place,” he said, “and it got me in shape, kept me out of trouble and got me around the city.”
Alexander went on to graduate from Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in 2006, and four years later he emerged from the University of Kansas with undergraduate degrees in environmental studies, geography, international studies and Spanish.
Now, at age 25, he’s working to help underprivileged children learn and grow through biking like he did as a kid.
Alexander is founder and executive director of a nonprofit called FreeWheels for Kids, which is based in a spare bedroom of the house he and his wife own in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood here.
FreeWheels for Kids teaches bike safety to children as young as age 8.
Through the FreeWheels Earn a Bike program, middle school- and high-school can learn bicycle repair skills as they refurbish donated two-wheelers for themselves and other children. Alexander also tries to teach the students the benefits of mastering new skills and taking on big jobs.
It’s about having the confidence to look at a broken down bike, Alexander said, and being able to say, “Yeah, I can take this on. I’m going to make this happen.”
Alexander started the program in the fall of 2011 while working as a part-time paraprofessional in a Kansas City, Mo. charter school. He officially incorporated the enterprise as a nonprofit corporation early last year.
Within the last couple of years, he said, participants had refurbished approximately 450 bicycles.
The nonprofit received a grant earlier this month from the Health Forward Foundation. Alexander said that funding would go toward establishing bike clubs in conjunction with the Earn a Bike program.
In addition, the Bethel Neighborhood Center, located along Seventh Street near Central Avenue here, has earmarked about one fifth of a $50,000 grant it received to expand FreeWheels for Kids programming there. That grant was part of funding announced last month from the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan.
The two grants, Alexander said, were a big reason why the nonprofit has a cash budget of about $60,000 this year. Last year’s cash budget was only about $5,000.
Alexander said the nonprofit was on track to serve about 900 children this year.
On Wednesday, Alexander was assisting Earn a Bike participants in the basement of the Bethel center.
On one side of the room, 12-year-olds Reyna Espino and Jaquelin Arambula worked to get the back tire off a pink Barbie bike propped upside down on its seat. Their workstation was a ping-pong table.
Eduardo Cruz, 12, sat nearby on a metal folding chair dealing with a tire issue of his own.
Reyna said the bike-repair skills she had learned could come in handy.
“If anything went wrong with my bike now,” she said, “I would know what to do with it besides putting it in the trash.”
Both girls said that working on bikes had taught them the benefit of patience. They also said it felt good to repair bikes that someone else could use.
Eduardo said what he had learned through FreeWheels made him feel safer riding his bike around the neighborhood, which he said he liked to do “because it is exciting and gets us in shape.”
The Rev. Mang Sonna, executive director at the Bethel center, said he wanted to work more with Alexander because he liked Alexander’s rapport with the children.
Evidence of that, he said, was seeing the Bethel center children riding around the neighborhood on the bikes they had fixed up in class.
It’s especially important to stress physical fitness for kids at the center, said Rakmi Shaiza, program director and volunteer coordinator, since most of them come from families with no health insurance.
Parents also realize the benefits of the program, she said. A lot of them work, she said, making it difficult for them to come to the center to register their children for things.
But “with this program, almost all of them immediately came to sign up,” Shaiza said.