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The Man Who Turns Old Bikes Into Smiles

Volunteer Manuel Vera uses his bike repair skills to give back to his community

Video: ‘Bike Man’ Repairs, Gives Away Nearly 600 Free Bicycles

Manuel Vera, 74, a retired program manager living in Silver Spring, Maryland, turned his love of bikes and bike repair into a mission when he saw a need in his community. He tells AARP his story.

At first, I just wanted to do something constructive for my neighbors, so I started offering free bike tune-ups; adjustments, tune-ups, relubrication. I’m not a professional mechanic, but I had always enjoyed working on bikes. I taught myself in my 20s and was retired, so I had the time.

I would never make it as a bike shop mechanic, though, because I work very slowly. It’s the process that I enjoy. It’s a moment of quiet for me.

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One night, I started thinking about the bikes my neighbors weren’t asking me to fix­­ — the ones their kids had outgrown or that stayed in the garage. So I started collecting used bikes and fixing those up. That’s how the Free Bikes Program started.

My first distribution was outside a local church. I stood there when the service let out with five or six refurbished bikes and a sign that said “Free Bikes.” They went pretty fast. Later, I’d go to a busy park near moderate-income apartment buildings. Every two or three weeks, I’d show up with some bikes to give away. I didn’t try to determine who could or couldn’t afford a bike. You never know someone else’s situation. If someone wanted one of the bikes, they were welcome to it.

Then in 2021, the government of Afghanistan fell, and my part of Maryland started to get an influx of Afghan refugees — proud people who’d built a life in their homeland but were starting over with nothing. I could identify with leaving your country and starting over, because I had emigrated from Peru as a child. Even when it’s an exciting change, it’s still scary. So I connected with organizations that help settle refugees and offered bikes through them.

As of today, I’ve given away over 550 bikes. And I’m providing them to refugees from not just Afghanistan but also Africa, Central America, Ukraine, Iran. It brings a lot of satisfaction. I’ve had times where somebody told me, “You give me hope.” One young man, a Syrian refugee, said, “This is the light in the dark.”

I have learned it doesn’t take much to help somebody else. Just look for something they need — cut their grass, pick up their groceries. Those little moments of kindness can change someone’s day, or their life.

— As told to Leslie Quander Wooldridge

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