Digging through a box of tools, 11-year-old Mi’Kiya Davis finds a wrench and gets to work removing the rear wheel of her bright blue bicycle, which is flipped onto its handlebar.
An older boy borrowed her bike and returned it with a flat.
But that doesn’t faze Mi’Kiya.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” she says with a shrug, “because I can come back to the shop and fix it.”
The 3-year-old shop, called Front Yard Bikes, is a nonprofit community bicycle center in the Old South Baton Rouge neighborhood. It’s where kids can learn to fix bicycles and eventually receive a free bike by putting in a little work or “sweat equity.”
About 10 to 20 kids show up everyday at either the Terrace Avenue location, which opened last year, or the original shop on Roosevelt Street. In addition to bike repair, the youngsters can get tutoring, play basketball and learn to garden.
In three years, 252 children have earned bikes, says founder Dustin LaFont.
“It’s baffling,” the 27-year-old LaFont says. “With all the electronics and distractions available, these kids are motivated to come to a warehouse and learn about bike repair.”
After school on a cold Monday, the cinder block building at Front Yard Bikes’ Terrace Avenue location bustles with two dozen youngsters. Some try to resuscitate old bikes while others teach what they have learned.
Outside, some are riding bikes in circles on the property, a former BREC park. A few boys play basketball, and a small group sits on the bleachers talking.
Inside, LaFont walks around answering questions and giving pointers to the young mechanics.
LaFont — his long braids making him look like a young, brown-haired Willie Nelson — offers encouraging one-liners often, such as: “Be excellent in everything you do — not because the work is significant, but because the person doing the work is significant.”
He tells them, “I’m investing in you as a future leader of our city.”
He expects and gets respect. Calls of young voices saying, “Excuse me, Mr. Dustin,” reverberate through the room.
Leading Front Yard Bikes is LaFont’s “dream job,” and grant money from the Special Children’s Foundation helped make it a full-time occupation. It only exists because there is a need, he says.
“I open the doors,” he says. “I don’t recruit. They come here because they want to do something.”
It started in the summer of 2012, when LaFont, then an LSU graduate preparing to start his job as a social studies teacher at Westdale Middle School, noticed a neighborhood kid riding a bike with no tires, just bare wheels rolling hard on the pavement. LaFont offered to give him a BMX-style bike a roommate had left behind — but he had to earn it by learning to make the repairs.
Soon, the self-taught mechanic’s front yard was full of kids at his Wyoming Street house learning to fix bikes, hence the name. LaFont’s landlord disapproved, citing insurance concerns, but offered to lease him an old warehouse on Roosevelt Street. Donations and bike sales to adults helped him make the rent.
It was a “dark, wet, hole-in-the-roof warehouse with no electricity at all,” LaFont says, but the kids kept coming, and the Front Yard Bikes family grew.
In the summer, he organized group bike rides to libraries, museums and parks. During the school year, he visited teachers to hold accountable students who work with him at the shop.
Word about the program spread.
A story in The Advocate in 2013 led to a wave of donations — money, bikes, parts and tools — and other articles and speaking events helped recruit volunteers and donations.
Last year, Front Yard Bikes was offered a lease at the Terrace Avenue park. Across the street from the EBR Carver Branch Library, it offered more amenities to attract children and teens.
The building has electricity and plumbing. Outside, there is a basketball court and plenty of room for a community garden. It’s open two days a week for bicycle repair, while the original Roosevelt Street warehouse remains open every weekday.
At the Terrace Street center, 15-year-old Kenan Hayes worked all summer building bike racks because, he says, the nonprofit helps the community. LaFont has taught him important lessons, he says.
“He cares about us,” Kenan says while swapping out a wobbly wheel from the bike he earned. “He cares about the children and the community. He teaches us about how to be thankful for every day.”
Next to Kenan, Mi’Kiyah continues changing her flat tire. One of the few girls learning bike repair, she says hanging out at the shop has helped her get used to working with boys.
“I’m getting a little tough!” she says, flexing her muscles.