Handlebar Helpers started in 1994 by the City of Scottsdale as a community, volunteer-supported “earn-a-bike program” for kids who could not otherwise afford bicycles, but it has evolved into a unique opportunity for the developmentally disabled to gain economic independence.
“I’m here to provide for my family: my wife, my 8-month-old baby,” said Juan Leon, a Scottsdale participant in the Training and Rehabilitation Services (STARS) Handlebar Helpers Group Supported Employment program participant of nearly two years. “We just moved to an apartment, and that’s why I’m here.”
Supported by Thunderbird Charities, Handlebar Helpers is located in the Paiute Neighborhood Center in southern Scottsdale and is operated by STARS as a job skills training program for individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities, like Leon.
The city asked STARS to run the program two years ago.
“We saw an opportunity here,” said STARS Community Engagement and Outreach Coordinator Jules Hyde. “We wanted to get away from things that might be just cleaning or bagging groceries, and this was a perfect opportunity to get into something that’s a little higher level and has more critical thinking.”
Through the GSE program, participants work part-time learning job skills through hands-on training in bicycle repair and reconditioning.
The participants are supported not only by their job coach, but also by a professional with over 40 years experience in the bicycle industry.
“You’re providing this person an opportunity to do something that they’ve probably been told they’ll never get to do and giving this person an opportunity to earn a paycheck when they been told probably multiple times that they’d never be able to achieve that,” Hyde said.
Handlebar Helpers accepts donated bikes and bike parts, as well as sells bike parts at discounted prices – from tire parts ($10-$25) and brakes (10-$20) to pedals ($10-$20), chains ($18) and cables (price varies).
Equipped with top-of-the-line bicycle repair equipment and tools, Handlebar Helpers also offers bicycle repair services and sells repaired bikes to the public at discounted prices.
Currently, Handlebar Helpers has over 160 bikes at the shop, with about half of them fixed up and ready to be sold.
“Every bike that comes in needs different kinds of repair, and [the participants] have to figure out what’s wrong with the bike. So, they have to go through their problem-solving skills to diagnose the issue with each bike, and it’s always different,” said Handlebar Helpers GSE Job Coach Mackenzie Kundinger.
In addition to learning how to fix bikes, participants are also learning social skills, including how to work as a team.
“One of our participants basically started out nonverbal with not very good motor skills. He really couldn’t hold a tool. I’ve worked really hard with him and now he’s to the point where he communicates with his peers – basic communication, but he communicates with his peers,” Kundinger said.
To become a bike mechanic, many shops require at least two to three years of experience working at the same bike shop.
Handlebar Helpers allows participants to remain in the program for a full three years to ensure they’re eligible for a job post-program.
Northern Scottsdale resident Michael Favia has been a participant in the program for two years.
“I always wanted to work on bikes,” he said, adding that his plan is to work at a bike shop in Scottsdale once he completes the program.
RC Dries, on the other hand, has been a participant in the program for one year.
He said he joined the program because he’s “really good at taking things apart and putting them back together,” and so far, he said Handlebar Helpers has improved his hand-eye coordination.
The money Handlebar Helpers raises from sales goes directly back to STARS and its programs, including helping to fund the participants’ paychecks and purchasing parts for the bikes needing repair.
“At Handlebar Helpers, we don’t have an extra entity paying the wages for these individuals, so STARS goes into its own pocket to pay for these guys, which makes it really, really difficult to fund this program and to make it a sustainable program,” Hyde admitted.
While STARS does host a bike sale the second Friday of the month – an event that allows people to come by the shop from 5 to 7 p.m., outside of its usual business hours of 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. – the nonprofit continues to seek monetary donations from the community.
“That is our current need,” Kundinger said. “Bike sales help funding, and we could really use funding. It is expensive.”
To donate, Hyde recommends mailing a check directly to Handlebar Helpers.
Coming up, Handlebar Helpers will take part in Paiute Neighborhood Center’s upcoming Bike Rodeo event on Sept. 27.
At the two-hour event, all children’s bikes will be on sale, and Handlebar Helpers will give away free helmets and provide a bicycle obstacle course.
A bike raffle will be held as well.
Those interested in dropping off a bike and/or donating can do so by visiting or mailing a check to the following address:
STARS Handlebar Helpers Bike Shop
Where: Paiute Neighborhood Center, 6535 E. Osborn Rd., Building 6
Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; 2nd Friday Bike Sale, 5-7 p.m.