This program turns scavenged bikes into new rides for kids – with one inmate’s help

Folsom prison inmate Mauricio Argueta repairs bicycles in a shop at Folsom State Prison in Repressa on Friday. The old donated bikes are repaired and then donated to needy children.
Folsom prison inmate Mauricio Argueta repairs bicycles in a shop at Folsom State Prison in Repressa on Friday. The old donated bikes are repaired and then donated to needy children.

At Folsom State Prison, old bikes are given an unexpected second life.

Just in time for summer vacation, dozens of underprivileged students across El Dorado County are receiving newly refurbished bicycles, courtesy of inmate Mauricio Argueta, who has put thousands of hours into the prison’s bike repair shop.

“It’s really hard because it’s just me doing it,” said Argueta, who spends about 60 hours a week fixing hundreds of bicycles each year. “It’s a little tough, but I love doing this and it’s a good experience.”

Organized through the Cameron Park Rotary Club and the Folsom Moose Lodge, the restoration program was first developed in the 1980s as a way to help keep inmates busy and provide needy children a gift for the holiday season.

While the Christmas tradition continues, the program – which has delivered thousands of bicycles since its inception – has since expanded to a year-round operation, ensuring kids in need of a bike have one by the time school lets out.

Some of those kids include Franchesca Copple, 10, and Jewels Copple, 7, who received their new bicycles at Buckeye Elementary School on Wednesday. Their father, Robert Copple, said that he had wanted to purchase bikes for them, but it would have been financially unfeasible.

“I was just excited for the kids,” said Copple, who picked up the bicycles that afternoon. “Francesca had been riding her friend’s bike.”

Last month, Pollock Pines Elementary School and Camino Elementary School received about 25 bicycles each, according to Joe Ryan, who spearheads the program. Louisiana Schnell Elementary School also received about 50 bikes.

“My population is 69 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged,” said Louisiana Schnell Elementary School principal Patrick Paturel. “So most of the bikes do go to kiddos that need one and probably don’t have the resources to get one.”

Over the past year alone, about 650 children and adult bicycles have been delivered through the program, according to Ryan.

The unwanted bicycles and used parts come from a variety of places. Some come from El Dorado recycling facilities. Others come at a discounted rate from local bike and repair shops, where Ryan has cultivated relationships over the years. William Rufus Watts, owner of Rufus Cycles in Diamond Springs, said being a part of the program has been a rewarding experience.

“I’m 61 going on 62,” said Watts, who has been working with Ryan for about 10 years. “I like living in the light more than living in the dark.”

Some bikes come from outside El Dorado County. In the last year, the city of Folsom picked up 415 unwanted bikes left on curbs for bulky waste collection, according to Marie McKeeth, Public Works section manager for the city of Folsom. Inmates comb through city recycling facilities’ dumpsters filled with the collected bikes to scavenge different frames and parts, she said.

Over the years, rotary member Bill Hughes said “word has really gotten out” about the program. The number of salvaged bikes continued to grow, as did the number of underserved people in need of a cheap form of transportation.

Last summer, the program began delivering bicycles to Union Gospel Mission in Sacramento, according to Danny Vanek, who helps coordinate the program there. For those struggling to make ends meet, spending a couple hundred bucks on a new bike is out of the question for most, Vanek said.

“A lot of other places will just sell them, but it’s about helping,” Vanek said. “It’s not about the ego or glory or pride, but seeing how people help others (and) putting others first.”

As details about the program’s work with homeless individuals spread, Ryan started receiving calls from veterans saying that their community could also benefit from the program’s services.

Many veterans living in transitional housing do not have access to a car, according to Glen Jackson, who works in human resources at the Veterans Affairs clinic at Mather Hospital. The center now works closely with Ryan to give as many veterans as possible the transportation they need to get to work and get back on their feet.

Other veterans receiving bikes are homeless, Ryan said, and living in Sacramento. While they may take light-rail toward the hospital, the center is still a couple miles away from the nearest station.

“A lot of them said, ‘Man, this would really help get us there,’ ” Ryan said.

Now, when Ryan arrives at the hospital every fourth Tuesday of the month with a couple dozen freshly refurbished bicycles, he said people are already lined up waiting for him outside.

“The kids win, the adults win, and the inmates win for providing a service for people on the outside,” Hughes said.

Argueta has about 24 months left before he gets out of Folsom State Prison. He is serving a six-year DUI sentence related to a car crash that injured several people, according to prison spokesman Lt. Jack Huey.

When he does get released, he said he plans on opening up his own bike shop to keep giving back to the community.

“I care about these people, and I want to see if I can do this program outside,” he said. “Whatever’s in my hand, I’m going to be comfortable helping a lot of people.”

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks: 916-321-1418, @ayoonhendricks