Earn a bike

Photo by Collin Richie

Front Yard Bikes sees growth while helping kids learn a skill

At 11 a.m. on a Monday, Dustin LaFont is checking in on a few familiar students at University Terrace Elementary School.

“All right, do good!” he says to one, ducking out of the door. “See you at the shop!”

Four years ago, LaFont was an LSU senior volunteering at the Washington Street community garden when his 10-year-old neighbor Rejay Wilson mentioned needing help fixing his bike. Then an amateur bike repairman, LaFont invited Wilson down the street to his house for a tune-up. But when Wilson rolled his bike up on bare rims with broken spokes, it was clear that repair wasn’t an option.

LaFont’s former roommate had recently moved out and left behind a small BMX bike, so LaFont struck a deal with Wilson: If he came back each day to learn how to fix up the bike, he could have it.

Word traveled fast in the neighborhood, and soon LaFont was operating a bike shop for more than a dozen kids out of his front yard, teaching them the skills to keep their bikes in shape.

“It started to be a common ground. We found that there was a lot of them, mostly boys between the ages of six and 18, that were highly motivated to do mechanics,” LaFont says. “So what we really consider our program is a bridge of communication over this gap of [different] people—middle-class, poor, black, white—and we’ve started building a community together.”

Where does Front Yard Bikes get bike parts?
• Independent donors
• Mid City Bikes
• Massey’s at LSU’s north gates
• Baton Rouge Police’s bike division
How many children have they reached?
113 have received at least one bike, but most have built more.
How many bikes have they built?
More than 250. They also sell refurbished bikes to the public to raise funds.
More information: Email [email protected] or visit the Front Yard Bikes community page on Facebook.

Front Yard Bikes now resides at 974 Roosevelt St. in a small but unmissable warehouse covered in murals painted in part by the children and teens who frequent the shop. As it has grown, so has its role in the revitalization of Old South Baton Rouge.

In March, LaFont took part in the second annual TEDxLSU event, which featured local leaders giving “the talk of their lives” for only a few minutes each. LaFont shared stories about the Front Yard kids.

In the grip of nerves before facing the crowd, it was a flamboyant, homemade parade bike LaFont brought as a prop that gave him the confidence to get his message across.

“[The bike] was on the other side of the stage right before I was getting ready to walk on, and I just looked at it, and I thought immediately, ‘Here I am. I took this bike out of a dumpster. Me and two kids fixed it up together. And now there’s an auditorium full of 400 people waiting to hear about it. I can’t go wrong,’” LaFont says.

It seems he was right, because in the wake of his TEDxLSU appearance, both Baton Rouge’s Special Children’s Foundation and a private donor have come forward to fund the project. With a donated salary matching his former pay as a teacher, LaFont can now afford to open the shop five days a week year-round. And, according to LaFont, local kids flock there after school every day.

When they’re not working on repairs, the Front Yard kids are making a place for themselves in their community. Every Friday afternoon, LaFont and his team lead the kids on a field trip to nearby stops like public libraries and parks that are both enriching and accessible for low-income kids.

The goal, LaFont says, is to introduce these inner-city youths to opportunities in different parts of their community, to make them feel welcome in those spaces and to disprove any notions that a person’s home address dictates his or her character. LaFont brushes off praise for himself and insists that the work and growth of the Front Yard kids is the real story.

“I could have sat in my front yard all those years and done nothing. I could sit in the warehouse in my workshop today and do nothing,” LaFont says. “What we have here is an engine. A car engine just sits and sits, and there’s not a lot to do with it. But when the kids show up, they’re the gasoline, and they’re revving the engine, causing all the excitement.”

Thanks to community backing and TEDxLSU, Front Yard Bike Shop continues to inspire and expand. On Roosevelt Street, LaFont waits for school to dismiss and his first young visitor of the day to pull up a workbench. Today, like every other day, he’ll make sure they leave knowing they’re valuable, and not just because Mr. Dustin said so.