A Day IN the Life: Urban Bike Project

Laura Wilburn - Urban Bike Project

Laura Wilburn has never owned a car.

She has, however, been on a bicycle for the majority of her life, has even biked from Bozeman, MT back to her home in Wilmington after a volunteering stint for AmeriCorps where she focused her passions on non-profit work.

When she got back home from her cross-country biking odyssey in October 2012, she found out about the Urban Bike Project, a non-profit that supports the community of Wilmington by offering access to various programs for affordable bikes and repairs. Wanting to volunteer, she told them that she had experience running youth programs and as a bicycle mechanic.

By 2013, she was the executive director.

From Hobby Mechanics to Non-Profit

The Urban Bike Project was founded in 2005 by David Hallberg, Brian Windle and Sarah Greene. David and Brian were both in their 20s and living in a house in the Trinity Vicinity neighborhood of Wilmington, and they had a hobby of fixing up bikes on the weekends. Salvaging bicycles from dumpsters, they’d take them home and fix them up.

“They’d be outside their house working, and kids would stop by and ask for help,” Laura says. “Next thing they knew they had kids lining up every weekend because there was a demand for repair education and affordable repair services in the area. So they started it from there, and it was out of their house. They had hundreds of donated bikes sitting in their basement for a while, and it eventually grew to the point where they said ‘We can’t do this out of our house anymore.’”

Today, they’re headquartered in a 6,000 sq foot historic building that was once home to the city’s police horses.

Day IN the Life

Summer is the busiest time of the year for Urban Bike Project. Laura heads up the youth side of things while Shop Manager, Sean McGonegal runs their adult programming.

If it’s a summer camp week, Laura will be with the kids helping them build their own bicycle where they start with a frame and a box of parts. The other half of the day they’re out having outdoor adventures, challenging themselves or building confidence by connecting with nature or through community service projects. If the day means a mountain bike ride, they’ll perform trail maintenance as well.

They also have ‘Earn-A-Bike’ programs that they run in-house or at local schools. Students will spend ten weeks refurbishing a bike and learning about basic mechanics. If the student makes it through the program, they get to keep the bike, and they receive a free helmet.

When camp is over around 5pm, they have to do a quick turnaround and get the space cleaned up, as Sean opens the repair shop at 6:30pm, when the adults come in to either shop for a bike or use the tools to make repairs (there’s also a kids-only night on Wednesdays). A typical night could see 20-40 adults, and they’ll have around four volunteers helping with repairs and sales.

This is also when adults come in to apply to receive a free bike. “These are folks who have mobility challenges for whatever reason,” Laura says. “To qualify, your income has to be below the poverty line.”

These are people who are trying to get a job or land an interview. Maybe they have legal obligations or a visitation with their children that they’re trying to get to. Any number of appointments that they must attend, and they need a regular means of transportation. While buses in New Castle County run until 11 pm during the week, often when folks are just getting started, they end up taking the less desirable shifts that start in the middle of the night.

“They have a choice of walking eight miles to get to work,” Laura says, “or they can come to us and we help get them a bike so they can maintain that job.”

And sure, there’s all of the administrative work and the grant writing, even processing bike donations which they refurbish or use for parts, but it’s part of serving the community.

Running a small non-profit requires Laura to wear a lot of hats, and the ever-changing challenges keep the job fun and interesting. But while they have racked up their fair share of success stories, there are bad days on the job too. “This is a neighborhood that has struggled with crime,” Laura says. “We’ve had kids that come to our shop who are regulars that passed away from gun violence.”

“It’s a reminder of why it’s needed to build that community and create safe spaces for our kids, a place where they can flourish, and learn and build confidence. Even a bike for kids in our neighborhood can mean the freedom to explore other parts of the city and challenge themselves outside their day to day environment.”

A Part of the Community

“I love riding through the city,” Laura says. “Everywhere I go, I run into the people I’ve had the honor of working with.” Sometimes she’ll hear kids riding their bikes calling out her name, or she’ll see the bike delivery guys at the Jimmy John’s downtown. “Over half of those employees have gotten their bikes from our shop,” she adds.

“I feel like I’m a part of a community where I have an opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people,” Laura says. “Everybody can get into biking. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, what race you are, or what neighborhood you live in. It’s really a gratifying thing for me.”

And she can do it all from the comfort of two wheels.