Archive for Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Inmates become Santa’s helpers

Bike Giveaway program hits 8th year at LCF

December 5, 2007

When Julian Castillo entered the Lansing Correctional Facility minimum security unit a month ago, he had no idea he would be given the opportunity to give back to his community.

Working in the LCF Bike Giveaway program is not your typical prison job, but the crew members use their time behind bars rebuilding donated bikes to give out to local children whose families can't afford to buy them one themselves.

"I feel like Santa's little helper," Castillo said with a smile.

Working on the bikes, he said, made him feel good and happy for the children who would benefit from his efforts. He said growing up his family was in the same situation, which has given him even more incentive to work hard.

Castillo said the work of the bike crew was about helping children and not about themselves. He only hopes that the bikes he builds will put a smile on a child's face.

The LCF Bike Giveaway program began in 1999 on an inmate volunteer basis. That year, the crew managed to refurbish 25 bikes.

"It just grew after that," said Tracy Ashton, an administrative assistant in the East Unit of LCF and lead organizer of the program for the past six years.

In 2005, the program gave away 503 bikes; in 2006, it gave away 545 bikes; and this year, Ashton said she was already up to 480 reserved bikes and that the year wasn't even over yet.

With bikes that seem to cover every open square inch available in the limited East Unit buildings, behind the main prison on Kansas Highway 5, and with many of those rooms holding bikes that are piled to the ceiling, Ashton admits that it's a big job for the inmates to take on.

Members of the bike crew, who are serving time for convictions that range from drug possession to armed robbery, work for the nonprofit program for 60 cents a day.

The program relies on outside organizations to find the families in need as well as for parts and tools.

Ashton said the program would take in anything it could get and make it work; if a bike can't be rebuilt, it will be torn down and used for parts; if a tools breaks, the crew does everything it can to weld it back together.

Ashton said the generosity of the organizations they provide bikes for and other community members keep the program alive. Right now, crew members are elbow-to-elbow sharing workbenches and tools, but Ashton said they are thankful for what they have.

So far, the program hasn't had to turn anyone who requested a bike away, but some have had to be put on a waiting list. Ashton said the demand was getting so big and taking so much more work that she gives her crew a break after the Christmas season.

"We definitely couldn't do it without them," Ashton said of her bike crew, which currently numbers about 8.

Workers such as Larry Walker are a good example. Without being asked, Walker, organized the entire shop, making workflow better. He joked about having obsessive-compulsive disorder where he needed to have everything organized, but a deeper passion radiated through his serious exterior.

Bob Hemphill, another crew member with the program, said he felt lucky to be able to work for the program.

"I have kids and grandkids of my own," he said, "so I've seen the smiles before."

Hemphill has worked for the program for six months and said he was happy to be working for a program that was specifically about helping children and making them happy.

Ashton said she has conversations with her crew and tries to teach the inmates the importance of community service as well as teamwork. This time of year especially, she said there was a lot of pressure on the program and the inmates were missing their families more. It's when she relies on having a team that supports each other and works well together.

"The guys are really good," she said. "They work really hard at what they do."

It takes a tough work ethic to work for the program, Ashton said, especially since all of the training is done on the job with only a few manuals floating around the shop.

Friday, crew members will get to see the fruits of all their labor during the programs annual Christmas season Bike Giveaway. Organizations from both Kansas and Missouri, including the Lansing Mayor's Angel Tree Program, will come to the East Unit to pick up their already-reserved bikes.

The event gives inmates a chance to talk with representatives from the organizations that will be taking their bikes to the children of less fortunate families. Ashton said she usually hears stories back about the recipients of the bikes, which she passes on to the crew.

Robert Loe, who has worked for the program for four months, said it was nice knowing that you helped someone out and were able to give back to the community.

"It's a good program," he said. "It helps the kids and that's really all that it's about."

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