Walk into the Delta Bike Project in Mobile, Alabama on any given Sunday, and you’ll quickly notice Jeff DeQuattro.
He’ll be the tall man with the beard, quick smile and easy manner moving among the people working on bicycles making sure they have the right parts or tools, answering questions, and offering help or encouragement depending on what’s needed most.
But this isn’t just a biker’s hobby, not by a long shot. In fact, the project is filling a vital need – providing transportation to people who otherwise could not afford a bike.
During the work day, Jeff is the director of restoration for The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico program, where he spends his time thinking about things like coastal conservation and oysters. Come Sunday afternoon (and most Tuesday evenings), his attention shifts to the bike project, located in an open space with a concrete floor just down from Wintzell’s Famous Oyster House and the Bee Hive Barbershop.
There are often a couple of dogs around, too, including a 3-year-old hound rescue mix named Charlie who greets visitors and regulars as they come in. It looks like any busy, friendly bike hobby shop, but the Delta Bike Project is a hobby shop with a mission that goes far beyond bicycles.
It didn’t start out that way.
“The whole thing really started a couple of years ago,” says Jeff, “when I was given a bicycle repair stand for my birthday. My first project was converting this used bike I had from a 10-speed to a single speed. I finished that, and then my friend Carl wanted to work on his bike and then we were fixing up bikes for friends and getting orders and requests, and we had more people coming by to work on bikes, and then my house started smelling like WD40.”
Eventually the group rented the studio space they occupy now, and that’s when everything changed. “As soon as we opened our doors,” says Jeff, “we realized it wasn’t going to be a hobby shop because of the poor and the homeless people who came – they saw us with our bike stands and bike tools and we saw the need that we hadn’t seen before when we were fixing bikes at my house or in a friend’s backyard.”
The need they saw? A reliable means of transportation and a way for people who otherwise couldn’t afford a bike to earn one. The Delta Bike Project was born.
“What started as a hobby,” says Jeff, “has turned into us filling this major need in the community. A lot of times, it can be very difficult for a homeless person to get or keep a job because transportation can be so difficult – but a bike helps them get to work, or to interviews, or to the employment agency.”
For people who can’t afford one of the used bikes, the Delta Bike Project has a sweat-equity Time is Money program. People can give their time at $10 an hour towards a bike or parts. “For any used bikes we sell,” says Jeff, “the money goes back into buying parts for the donated bikes we fix. We’ve had some great successes – the coolest thing is that these guys who do this work they have so much fun and they learn so much. After they finish working for their bike, they come back and donate their time to help others on Sunday afternoons. They just want to come help, keeps them busy doing stuff on a Sunday when there’s no work.”
The bikes – and the commitment it takes to earn one – can change lives for the better. There’s Roger, a man in his late 60s, who worked for 2 to 3 weeks to get a really nice road bike that he uses to go to Mississippi and see his daughter and her family. It’s a 4-hour ride each way. And there’s James, who isn’t homeless anymore. Because he can get to jobs on his bike, he is now able to work enough to afford housing. The stories go on, and it’s not just homeless and poor people who support the Project.
“The mayor of Mobile,” says Jeff, “bought a bike from us.”
In the end, of course it’s about far more than the bikes. It’s about the needs the bikes fill – for the homeless, for the volunteers, for the community and for Jeff DeQuattro.
“It’s change you can see in the community,” says Jeff. “Change to be proud of, to be a part of. And for me, it’s about more than filling the need for people who need bikes, it’s also about creating a broader bike culture in Mobile as a whole. We want it to be the most bike and pedestrian-friendly city on the Gulf Coast. For me, it’s all really about Mobile – the place where I live. I’m tired of people saying it’s a city with perpetual potential. It does have potential, but it just takes a few people to have some ideas and make some changes.”
More people like Jeff DeQuattro maybe. Listening to him talk about his commitment to Mobile, it’s easy to see why he was named to Mobile Bay Magazine’s list of 40-under-40 community leaders. And now that the Delta Bike Project is up and running? “I have this really cool idea,” says DeQuattro, “for urban gardens that can supply local restaurants.”
To keep up with Jeff and the Conservancy’s work in the Gulf of Mexico, follow them on Facebook for the latest (Right now, they’re featuring updates on ospreys Josie and Elbert via the livestreaming ospreycam – now, with two brand new chicks!)
If you want to know more about the Delta Bike Project, they’re on Facebook, too. (See more pictures of Jeff, other volunteers and all the dogs of the DBP).