Free Bicycles: A Plymouthite Gives Back

How a group of philanthropic souls reached out to a Plymouth neighborhood and provided bikes, repairs and good-old-fashioned kindness.
Makeshift mechanics: John Layton and Marc Kowalski.


Everyone remembers his or her first bike. Whether it was a Huffy lime green number with a banana seat and pink floral basket or a stylish Schwinn, there’s just something about that first taste of bi-wheeled freedom that remains permanently tucked away in our humming hippocampus.

But there are also folks who don’t have a bike, or have one but can’t ride it because it is in ill repair. How can we help them get one?

That is the question Plymouth resident Marc Kowalski, his uncle John Layton and a group of volunteers sought to answer with a bike giveaway at the Willow Woods neighborhood last May.

Layton, an avid bike enthusiast himself, spent many hours assembling Schwinn Varsity bikes at lightning speed during his teenage years. But he got the idea for a bike giveaway when he was dropping off food with his son at Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners (IOCP) in Wayzata.

“There was a little girl with her parents, and she pulled out a bike from the side of the building,” Layton says. “I watched her and started wondering if the bike worked, did it fit her, were the tires inflated, did the gears work. It just really got me wondering how I could help.” He phoned IOCP and was put in touch with Nichole Garrett, program assistant with CONECT (Community Organizations Networking Compassionately Together) and at the time, liaison to the Willow Woods neighborhood. She thought a bike giveaway was a great idea.

So Layton, financial advisor and partner at Focus Financial, put out a call to his coworkers for bikes that were gathering dust in garages; he asked family members; he asked friends. In the first two weeks, he received 25 bikes and a sponsorship from Penn Cycles to get a deep discount on parts. Every evening for a month, Layton worked in his garage repairing and restoring the bikes that would one day bring a smile to another’s face. He wound up repairing 50 of them, 25 of which had been brought in for repairs by community members. “My hands were shredded,” he says with a smile.

And on May 1, 2010, there was food, there was music, there were lots of bikes and lots of people who wanted one. “People were lined up at 8:30 a.m. to get a bike or to have their bike repaired,” Layton says. “We decided to charge $5 for a bike and a brand new lock; that way they felt some ownership, and it wasn’t a total charity thing.”

Kowalski was there bright and early with his son Roger, matching the right bike to the right rider, making repairs and helping out in any way he could. “For me, it was great because my son is 8, and I try to show him how important it is to give back,” says Kowalski, who takes Roger to volunteer at the Dorothy Day Center and encourages him to donate a third of his allowance money to charitable organizations. “I explained to him that not everyone has a bike, or they might have one that doesn’t work. He saw how important it was to the kids and the parents, and what a difference it makes to reach out and help others.”

When asked about their thoughts on getting a bike from the giveaway, one happy adult recipient said, “I haven’t been on a bike in years. I’m excited to be able to get the exercise and go on outings with my family.” And a child recipient who stopped pedaling just long enough to answer the question, explained succinctly, “I love the freedom my bike gives me.”

And so, at 5 p.m. on that bright May Day, all 25 bikes were sold and another 25 were repaired—there were actually more people asking for bikes, so the duo put out another call to the community and came up with 12 additional bikes to fill the need within a week.


Want to Help, Too?

This year’s Bike Giveaway benefitting IOCP will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 1 in another Plymouth neighborhood (location to be determined). IOCP is always accepting donations of toys, food and clothing.