A Grove City teacher’s idea to provide bicycles to Native Americans a decade ago came to fruition this year – resulting in 128 bikes delivered this summer to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“You think a great idea has to happen at that moment, but things that are bigger than yourself are not on your timeline,” said Glen Sanders, an art teacher at George Junior Republic in Pine Township, a facility for court-adjudicated boys, which also has a school.
Located in the Great Plains, with tall grass and few trees, Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Lakota tribe.
It is the location of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, considered a national landmark. The reservation has also drawn attention for being one of the poorest places in America.
Sanders and his son, Cordell – a college student – drove with Richard Giglotti and Adam Swarts in a U-Haul to deliver the refurbished bikes June 22 to 26.
All members of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, the guys spent two days at Pine Ridge followed by two days of sightseeing.
The Lakota were very grateful, Sanders said. With communities spread apart in the vast territory – with few stores – the bikes help provide both recreation and transportation, he added.
Census information isn’t reliable but the population is estimated to be upwards of 40,000 people, he said. “We could have brought 2,000 bikes and it would have been a drop in a bucket.”
People arrived to pick up bikes at the Eagle Nest Butte Children’s Center, Wanblee, a small town on the reservation where the bike team camped in a tent “right next to a sweat lodge,” Sanders said.
About an equal number of children and adults received bikes, he said. Additional bikes were taken by volunteers to deliver to children participating in an art camp in the Black Hills the following month. The bike mission also visited Evergreen, Porcupine and a country area in Pine Ridge.
“We weren’t sure what to expect,” Sanders said. At Evergreen, there were many children with no shoes, which is another need on the reservation, he noted.
Sanders found out about the need for bikes after his car broke down a decade ago.
He and Cordell, then 8, took a road trip out West for “a father and son vacation,” he said. “We camped along the way and (South Dakota) was our end point. We visited Mount Rushmore and things like that.”
The two stopped to see family friends in Rapid City, S.D. When their vehicle broke down shortly into their trip back to Pennsylvania, the family brought them back to stay with them while the car was being fixed, he said.
It seemed meant to be. The wife was a social worker with the Lakota; her husband was from the tribe. They and her in-laws worked with the Lakota, and Sanders asked how he could help.
“They said ‘bikes,’ ” he said.
Sanders had already stopped buying bikes for his children because residents in Grove City often left bikes at the curb as trash and he was able to fix them up.
Driving 20 hours home, he wondered why the throwaway bikes couldn’t be refurbished for the Lakota who really needed them.
“I thought there could be a cool connection with the (GJR) kids here to work with the (Lakota) kids there,” Sanders said. However, “I think when I would share the idea it seemed very overwhelming.”
His vision went stale for a time. Sanders went onto other things, like his art students collaborating with welding and auto body students to make metal sculptures for public parking in Grove City, which opened up opportunities for other works of art in the Shenango Valley, Greenville, Pittsburgh and Mercer.
However, the bike vision was re-ignited at the end of 2015.
Robert Stubenbort – also a member of Calvin Presbyterian – approached Sanders about his bike mission idea, which Sanders shared a couple of years prior when Stubenbort had a fundraiser to provide bikes for children with disabilities.
In the spring of 2016, it was brought to their congregation “and bikes started coming in from there” from families who attended the church. The bikes were worked on and stored in the church garage at first.
By October of last year, Jeanie and Dave Mills opened up the basement of their business, Sweet Jeanie’s, in downtown Grove City for repairing and storing the bikes, Sanders said, adding it became the headquarters for the project. Bike repairs happened Sunday afternoons and a couple of weekdays.
Sanders’ sculpture work with students inadvertently helped the bike mission as well.
GJR and Greenville High School students were working on a metal sculpture designated for a trailhead in Greenville, as part of an effort to build bike and pedestrian trails countywide through an effort that includes the Mercer County Rails to Trails group.
“The people involved with sculptures were avid bike riders,” Sanders said. The trail people also got students from a bike club at Thiel College in Greenville to get involved, he added.
Rails to Trails volunteers Fred Kiser and Gary Semroc “were huge in helping with this project as wrenchers,” or people who are good at fixing bikes, he said.
Part of the project was teaching others how to repair bikes, with Sanders getting some pointers himself, he said. A strong group of about five individuals regularly worked on the bikes at Sweet Jeanie’s, Sanders’ church and Thiel.
Many of the repairs were “very simple,” such as brake adjustments and flat tires on everything from tricycles to 21 speed bikes, Sanders said.
“We did just about everything and if a bike was in too bad of shape, we used it for parts to help fix other bikes,” Sanders noted.
After speaking to the Office of Student Life staff at Grove City College, Sanders got more volunteers from the Sigma Theta Chi sorority to clean, photograph and catalog bikes that would be designated for Lakota people, he said.
Nick Fox, a GCC engineering student, spent every Sunday afternoon repairing bikes since January, Sanders added.
GJR students did get involved with the bike project: older students cleaned them for community service credits and younger ones designed artistic number tags for the bikes, he noted.
After the bikes were fixed, fifth-graders from the Girl Scout Troop in Grove City – including Sanders’ daughter Marayna – test drove them, he said.
The bike mission made connections with the Lakota from his friend’s mother-in-law, who had been a teacher and married to a medicine man, making her well known at Pine Ridge, Sanders said.
“They’re in a big hole … and the big thing is to help them lift themselves up out of that,” he said. “The need is great.”
This year’s bike effort has already started.
“We have about 80 bikes now, since our trip, and we’re looking for more,” Sanders said.
He also wants to provide helmets, bike stands and kits so recipients can repair their own bikes to last many years, he added.
“If this project grows and there becomes more community involvement, it would be great to provide bikes to other places,” Sanders noted.
“After the 10-year wait, “I’m very excited and happy it happened,” he said. “I don’t know where it’s going to go but wherever it’s going, it’s going to be great.”
To get involved, contact Glen Sanders at 724-450-0411, ext. 2079.