No one could have told former middle school social studies teacher Dustin LaFont that he would one day quit to run a bike repair shop for neighborhood children in South Baton Rouge.
Yet, that is what has happened in the two years since he opened Front Yard Bikes inside a small wood and tin building in the 900 block of West Roosevelt Street.
His shop has grown from being a barely funded grass-roots project that started at his house to being transformed into a federally funded nonprofit that employs him as its program head, he said.
LaFont raised money from family, friends and churches and got insurance to pay for the building on West Roosevelt that attracted children who were eager to work on their own bicycles, fix flats or transform a junked bicycle into a good one, LaFont said.
“It was challenging stepping away from being a teacher, but I had to think about who could run this bike program, and I thought there were more people available to teach social studies versus teaching mechanics and running an afterschool bike program,” LaFont said.
Thanks to his latest partnership with BREC, he also is running a new shop at 700 Terrace St., one mile from his old shop and across the street from the Carver Branch Library.
“We’ve grown to a huge degree,” he said. “Baton Rouge opened up its heart and people have continued to keep sending bikes.”
About 15 to 25 children visit his shops daily and about 100 children worked on and earned a bike last school year through the shop, he said. LaFont also makes school visits “to make sure the kids are doing well behaviorally and academically,” he said. “We use our bike program as a form of intervention.”
Once students fix their bikes, they test ride, work in the shop or assist other kids with taking bikes apart, he said.
LaFont initially began working on bicycles with neighborhood children in his front yard about five years ago when he lived on Wyoming Street.
“About 15 kids showed up at my house. I thought, ‘What is happening?’ ” he said. “Then we kind of envisioned that here are these kids, and they are excited to build bikes and do mechanics.”
Rejay Wilson, 16, and his twin sister, Reshay, were among the children who first showed up at LaFont’s home to inquire about having their bikes fixed.
“We helped Mr. LaFont get this started. There is a lot of negativity out there and this is something positive that we have to do,” Rejay said.
Rejay, who turned his bike from “looking like trash into something worth keeping,” said he also helps younger children fix their bikes. “I come every chance I get, fixing chains and brakes,” he said.
“We try to be role models for the younger kids,” Rejay said.
Though LaFont’s older shop had no electricity and runs off of a generator, LaFont’s newest shop has lights. Of course, it does have its faults, too. The shop is rough and rustic and there is plenty of lumber lying around, but we are “working on making that space accessible,” LaFont said.
LaFont will operate the Terrace Street bike shop inside a BREC facility, where he will offer children bike-fixing tutorials through the recreational commission, he said.
“We’re in it for the kids,” LaFont said. “This will help kids be more actively engaged.”
LaFont said he rode bikes to get around LSU’s campus when he was a student there. “It was so unaffordable to drive,” LaFont said.
Of course, riding his bike to get around meant putting a lot of wear and tear on it, he said. “When something broke on the bike, I fixed it myself. I couldn’t afford maintenance and so I learned to fix things.”
That was a godsend, LaFont said.
“God fixed it so that when my bike always broke, I learned a lot about bicycles, enough to be able to teach kids how to fix their own bikes,” he said.
Front Yard Bikes also provides alternatives for people who are restricted to getting around on bikes only.
“Parts and materials for bicycles can be expensive, and we offer bike parts for donations, or if they can donate their time, we’ll show them how to put everything on,” LaFont said.
LaFont owes most of the program’s success to the children who regularly visit his shop.
“The heart of the program is our kids and they want this. It’s wonderful to be the face of the program but I am not the program. The young people are shareholders of this program. We have to talk to them. The way they go is the way we go,” LaFont said.
Visit frontyardbikes.com for information.