DePaul senior pioneers after school program Four Star Bikes on West Side

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James Le sits with Mercy Home Director of Corporate Sponsorship Jim Marrese. Le is running the Chicago Marathon this Sunday on behalf of Mercy, the place he called home for a good portion of his childhood. (Amanda Crane / The DePaulia)

Members of the Four Star Bikes after-school program. (Amanda Crane / The DePaulia)

For teens in neighborhoods that don’t offer many options, repairing bicycles is offering much more than just a functioning bike.

Four Star Bikes is an after-school program for Chicago’s West Side kids of the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. It’s a workshop-based learning program that teaches students how to repair and build bicycles for community members.

And DePaul senior David Pohlad, 22, spent the last four months pioneering the program.

“This place isn’t around only to give the kids somewhere to escape to and hang out,” Pohlad said. “It’s in place to provide them with the work training and confidence needed to go out into their own lives and succeed.”

Belmont Cragin is a struggling neighborhood, lacking in youth outreach programs, Pohlad said. The organization picked this area, looking to bring a home-based youth center to the neighborhood, and to provide the kids opportunities to gain career skills.

“What I want the kids to get from this is how to be a successful individual, despite whatever hardships they are faced with,” Pohlad said.

Pohlad said the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, a group dedicated to providing programming opportunities for youth and struggling communities, funds the program at the Prosser Career Academy High School.

After briefly volunteering for the Albany Park Neighborhood Council’s youth project Bikes and Roses, Pohlad was asked to launch the new program branch in Belmont Cragin.

One of his newer volunteers, high school sophomore Pedro, said he enjoys the program’s familial aspect, and getting to know everyone he helps.

“It’s a great program!” Pedro said. “There are a lot of friendly people here. It’s like a big family.”

James Le sits with Mercy Home Director of Corporate Sponsorship Jim Marrese. Le is running the Chicago Marathon this Sunday on behalf of Mercy, the place he called home for a good portion of his childhood. (Amanda Crane / The DePaulia)

Four Star Bikes members repair a bicycle. (Amanda Crane / The DePaulia)

Shortly before opening, the organization received a state grant through the Summer Youth Employment Program. Then the school offered the garage space for the program, creating new opportunities for the grant money. The organization was able to pay the student volunteers for their work and really let the program grow during the summer.

“This was great. With the Four Star budget, I had eight kids getting paid $9 per hour for 25-hour weeks,” Pohlad said. “I was able to afford four big sets of bicycle tools; I had orders of extra bike parts needed for repairs coming in weekly.”

All the students who qualified to work for the summer program came from low-income families of the area, and were chosen through a special screening process provided by the city. Students who didn’t qualify for the grant money opted to volunteer for the summer.

“The kids I have now are such good kids,” Pohlad said. “To see them working so hard in a neighborhood that might not offer them as much as I had growing up is hard to see.”

Pohlad works as the youth coordinator for the organization. After a successful launch of the summer program, he wanted to continue it throughout the upcoming school year. He created a budget proposal for the project and was approved by the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, eliminating the need for city grants.

The after-school program began in September at Prosser and typically meets when school lets out until 5:30 p.m. three days per week. There are currently 15 to 20 student volunteers on a daily basis. Some of the current students volunteering in the program stayed from the summer program, as well.

The group has turned into one big family, Polhad said, and it has helped the program blossom, with many students inviting friends to join. And the kids are learning hands-on skills they can take into adulthood.

Pohlad said most student volunteers had no experience with mechanics or even riding bicycles before working in the shop. Throughout the summer, the volunteers learned quickly and are now able to complete most of their work without any assistance.

Some are even teaching others the skills they have learned.

“The best part is being able to work on bikes myself now that I know how, and being able to give hands-on training to others,” said high school junior Lizeth.

Lizeth was one of the organization’s summer volunteers who continued her work into the after-school program this year.

With the program gaining a lot of neighborhood support, the group is finding ways to give back to the community. They participated in a variety of community service projects in recent months, including volunteering at a community garden run by the high school science department chairman. They also participated in the local farmers markets during the summer, providing free bike services to community members.

Pohlad said he looks forward to continuing this expansion throughout the year, and hopes to get more kids involved and create more workspace to accommodate the growing number of members.

“We are experiencing a significant amount of growth during this time, so the biggest thing I’ve been focusing on lately are the involvement of the kids,” Pohlad said.