Mark Beiser’s ‘Bike Empowerment Program’ serves at-risk Peoria youth
As a trained youth counselor, Peorian Mark Beiser believes that positive reinforcement and learned skills can unlock hidden potential lying deep in at-risk teens. As the administrator of a unique bicycle repair and donation program, he’s been quietly instilling mechanical skills, responsibility and self empowerment in Peoria youth for several years.
The program, known as the Bicycle Empowerment Program, was conceptualized and developed by Beiser. It is delivered through Bike Peoria, the Bike Peoria Co-Op and the Dream Center.
“Bike Peoria is a nonprofit organization that does advocacy for trail development, started in 2014,” said Beiser. “We do some local lobbying with the city council and the county board for trail development and work to make Peoria a safer place to ride. Out of that organization sprang the Bike Peoria Co-Op, located up on Main Street. It’s a place where people can learn about their bike, and get help fixing their bike. Pretty quickly after the Co-Op started, we began a program we call the Bicycle Empowerment Program.”
The program works like this: youth ages 9-14 are eligible for the program through the Dream Center’s popular after-school “309 Center.” The youth are allowed to participate in an 8-to-10 week tutorial on bicycle repair, maintenance and safety. Held twice per week, the hour to hour-and-a-half long classes allow the students to build their own bikes out of frames, parts and cables-- and eventually take ownership of the completed bike.
“They learn how to replace tires and inner tubes, and patch (tires)-- which is a lost art,” Beiser said. “The goal is to empower these kids, and there’s nothing like a bicycle to empower a kid. It means freedom, it means autonomy, it means independence, but they also come out of the program with (a skill).”
The Bike Peoria Co-Op, located at 612 West Main Street, has been partnering with the Dream Center, located just down the road at 714 Hamilton Boulevard, since 2014 to mentor youth through Beiser’s bike program. Dream Center provides the students, meeting space and storage for the bicycles and bike parts Beiser collects from donors, and Beiser, along with a few trusted volunteers, provides the education and mentoring.
“It’s a joint venture between us two nonprofits. We get funding from our yearly ‘Beers and Gears’ ride with all of the money going to our youth empowerment group,” said Beiser, who began his career as a youth counselor for Children’s Home of Peoria. It was during his ten years at Children’s Home that he first began helping kids with minor bike repairs.
“Over time I saw the magic of how empowering and freeing an experience like that could be,” he said. “It’s like having magic powers as a nine or a twelve year old. Self-efficacy is something that is not valued in today’s culture. Too much screen time can affect their ability to be patient and handle something that requires a little effort, but once you teach them that there is value in that, it gives them magic powers.”
It’s been a win-win situation for Bike Peoria, Dream Center and the community for years, but the time has come, Beiser said, to expand the program along with the Bike Peoria Co-Op. With the planned expansion will arise the need for more sponsors, volunteers and donations.
“The Bike Peoria Co-Op has limited hours. We need volunteers; anyone that has any level of skills is welcomed. The Co-Op serves a lot of disadvantaged community members, (and) people who might need a bicycle to get to work. We help out that segment of our community, and there’s a big need there. But we can’t keep up with only four or five of us,” said Beiser.
In addition, the Dream Center needs more volunteers for its after-school trades program (which includes Beiser’s Bike Empowerment Program), according to Beiser and Dream Center program director Robbie Criss.
Donations of used bicycles for the Bike Peoria Co-Op and the Bike Empowerment Program are also needed. Donations can be made during Wednesday nights, Thursday nights and Sunday mornings at the Bike Peoria Co-Op. Bikes can be dropped off specifically for the Bike Empowerment Program at the Dream Center.
“For the Bike Empowerment Program kids’ bikes are always in need-- the more I can get the better. Twenty-inch bikes, and smaller mountain bikes will work,” Beiser said, adding that he has set some major goals for his Bike Empowerment Program in 2023.
“The more Co-Op volunteers we can get for this program the more it will enable us to reach out to other community organizations. I know there are people at SouthSide Mission who would love to have a bike program, but there’s only one me. I would like to ‘franchise’ this program out. We could do this all over town, but once again we just need more people,” said Beiser.
For more information about the Bicycle Empowerment Program, visit the Dream Center’s website, www.dreamcenterpeoria.org. To learn more about Bike Peoria, visit www.bikepeoria.org. Beiser can be reached directly with questions about Bike Peoria, the Bicycle Empowerment Program, volunteering or donating at (309) 219-BIKE.