Ask 13-year-old Reshay Wilson why she goes to the after-school bicycle repair shop on West Roosevelt Street in Baton Rouge and she says, “Because it’s safe.”
The part of West Roosevelt between Nicholson Drive and River Road has abandoned houses with boarded up windows or windows broken out amidst houses where families live.
At late afternoon, there are few children on the street until a young man arrives to unlock a small wood and tin building in the 900 block.
On regular work days in the bike repair shop, there are kids waiting for Dustin LaFont to arrive. LaFont is a 26-year-old teacher at Westdale Middle School who lives in the West Roosevelt neighborhood on Aster Street.
As if summoned by a silent alarm, the children begin arriving within minutes of LaFont’s unlocking the place he and the children call Front Yard Bikes.
LaFont began working on bicycles with neighborhood children in his front yard when he lived on Wyoming Street.
The children and LaFont work in the little building where the only light is what comes through two doors and holes in the walls. Shafts of late afternoon light make half dollar-size spotlights on the back walls and floor.
“Before it gets hot,” LaFont said, “I hope we’ll have electricity and a big box fan.”
“I have a friend, an avid cyclist, who doesn’t give gifts,” LaFont said. “He donates to charities, to us more than once.”
LaFont’s landlord on Wyoming Street liked what the teacher was doing, but all the children in LaFont’s front yard made the landlord nervous.
“The children on his property scared the hell out of him because of the liability.” LaFont said.
Get insurance, the landlord told LaFont, and he’d rent him a building on West Roosevelt.
LaFont raised money from family, friends and churches and got insurance. So far, he’s been able to pay the $250 a month rent.
At the bicycle repair shop, children work on their own bicycles. That may mean fixing a flat or making a good bicycle out of junked ones.
LaFont likes the neighborhood’s mix of college students, Hispanic and black families.
Reshay learned to fix flats at the repair shop and how to put on a used derailleur after she broke hers throwing her bicycle down.
Replacing the derailleur, a mechanism that allows a cyclist to shift a bicycle’s gears, gave Reshay new respect for her ride.
“We had to learn to love the bike. Right, Reshay?” LaFont said.
Reshay’s reply was a slow smile.
Before Reshay’s twin, Rejay, found LaFont and the teacher’s bicycle tools, Rejay was riding on metal rims, loose spokes wrapped around the bicycle’s wheel hubs.
“You could hear him coming for hundreds of feet,” laughed Stephanie Elwood, 27, who works with neighborhood gardeners as part of her work at Southern University’s Agricultural Center.
Elwood’s work with children in the neighborhood led to the Iris Street Garden which happened to be Elwood’s yard.
Elwood introduced Rejay to LaFont.
Elwood knew LaFont as a neighbor, as someone who cycled and from the garden.
“Almost everyone who comes to the gardens becomes friends. There are lots of connections,” Elwood said.
Gardens are plural to Elwood, one of the founders of the Baton Rouge Garden Alliance, a group of seven gardens in the neighborhoods north of LSU and in north Baton Rouge.
What Elwood calls “garden advocates,” mostly African-American men and women in the neighborhoods, keep the gardens going.
LaFont is well-known in his LSU neighborhood. He was greeted by children passing on bicycles as he stood outside the shop one afternoon.
“Hey, Austin,” LaFont called back. “What’s up, Ladarius?”
LaFont met fiancé Kim Rick, 25, during their City Year stint in Baton Rouge. LaFont grew up in Houma. Rick’s from West Palm Beach, Fla.
“I’m not a big bike mechanic,” Rick said, “but I’m learning from the kids.”
Rick was showing Amanda Johnson, 14, the difference between Presta and Schrader valve stems.
“It was boring at home,” Amanda said, “so I came down here to work on a bike.”
Eric Ricard, 15, said he was learning as things needed fixing on his bicycle.
“I can get my bike fixed without having to ask anyone,” he said.
LaFont, who goes to church at Grace Life Fellowship, sometimes prays over his bicycle repair students and their machines.
“We pray over the bikes we fix,” he said. “We say, ‘Don’t let these bikes go into trouble,’” he said.
Parents in the neighborhood worry about their children’s safety, LaFont said. “They say, ‘Whatever you can do to keep them busy is appreciated.’”
One of the parents presented LaFont with a sack of groceries to show her appreciation.
“It’s not just what the kids turn into because of this,” LaFont said. “The real story is what they turn me into.”
LaFont can be reached at email@example.com.