Freewheels Houston: Enhancing Opportunities for Refugees Through Bicycles

Bill Mintz, Coordinator of Freewheels Houston

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Bill Mintz, Coordinator of Freewheels Houston, delivered a bicycle to Abdul Walid Farooqi, a refugee from Afghanistan, who uses it for shopping and trips to English classes, courses at Houston Community College, and job-hunting.

Houston is a big, bustling city with plenty of opportunities. Getting around the city, however, is a daily obstacle for everyone. For refugees, transportation is one of the major challenges they confront as they start new chapters in their lives.

Freewheels Houston, a ministry of Christ the King Lutheran, provides safe, reliable, used bicycles that are alternatives to walking and the Metro bus system for some of the city’s newest residents. A bicycle can expand a refugee’s world by shrinking travel times for essential trips to work, classes, and shopping, while enabling them to explore the city.

Since it was launched in Fall 2015, Freewheels has provided about 60 bicycles to adults and children from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, Honduras, Guatemala, Myanmar, and Nepal. In October, Freewheels plans to distribute bikes to 20 recently arrived clients of the city’s five resettlement agencies.

Freewheels’ foundation is the Biblical imperative to welcome the stranger. We work with refugee resettlement agencies, and we partner with many people across the city that share in our goal of enhancing opportunities for refugees through mobility. Many of our volunteers heard about Freewheels Houston through the bicycling community, while others want to help refugees as they make a new home in Houston. Many of the people who receive bicycles are Muslims or followers of other religions; all have fled violence in their home countries and are seeking a new start.

Partners include Bike Houston, Bike Barn, Refugee Services of Texas, Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, Rice Bikes, and the Texas Medical Association. In addition to donations of bicycles, we have received financial support from individual donors, offerings from congregations, and grants from Thrivent Financial and the Christ the King Lutheran Church Foundation.

We started Freewheels Houston with a campaign at Christ the King in October 2015 that led to donations of approximately 20 bicycles in varying condition. We also have received bike donations through word of mouth and social media. We have received used bicycles from Bike Barn, a large, locally owned bike shop chain.

We have two channels for repairing bicycles: Volunteer mechanics and Rice Bikes, a student-run business located on the Rice University campus. We are planning to expand our repair workday activities with the help of volunteers—members of congregations, students, and others who support our mission.

One element that sets Freewheels Houston apart from many bicycle donation programs is the way we use bicycle distribution events to connect Houstonians to our newest neighbors and watch what kinds of interactions and bonds develop. We’ve had two picnics, including one organized by ILEAD, the youth leadership program of Interfaith Ministries.

The events also include a safety briefing that includes a helmet fitting and tips for riding safely on Houston streets. We receive bicycle helmets through a generous program of the Texas Medical Association. In addition to lights and bells installed on bikes, we provide a drawstring backpack, a strong bicycle lock, a tire pump, a flat tire repair kit, and spare batteries.

All of our volunteers and partners share our commitment to creating a community that welcomes newcomers and encourages and supports safe bicycling.