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Youth chart new territory with Charlie's FreeWheels photography exhibit

Although its mandate of “exploring the design, governance and culture of cities” is decidedly grown-up, 401 Richmond’s UrbanSpace Gallery is set to host an exhibit created mainly by teenagers from around Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood next month. It’s one of an increasingly ambitious range of projects springing out of Charlie’s FreeWheels, a community bike club founded in memory of Cabbagetown cyclist Charlie Prinsep, who was killed by a truck on cycling holiday in 2007.
Launched as a seven-week pilot program in 2009, Charlie’s first opened its doors on the premises of the volunteer-run Bike Pirates at Bloor and Lansdowne. It now occupies a storefront at 245½ Queen East near Sherbourne, along with an outlet of the bike shop known as The Bike Joint.
“We have a shared space agreement, so the front of the shop is The Bike Joint, and they do all the repairs for the space. We run our programs independently out of the back,” says full-time program director Miya Akiyama. She is one of Charlie’s three staff members, along with youth leader Javante Barker and program coordinator/mechanic Sohel Imani, who are both employed part-time.
Together, they administer three build-a-bike programs that enrol neighbourhood youth for fairly intensive eight to ten-week sessions that run after school and on weekends. “Charlie’s receives donated bikes. The staff strips the bikes down, and the youth put them back together,” says Akiyama. “During that eight-week process, the youth learn to build a bike, but it’s also [about] riding and safety skills: a full overview of how to be a cyclist in Toronto.”

At a time when much of the political rhetoric around City Hall is couched in terms of the "war against the car" versus a "war on bikes," Charlie's simply gives young people access to the joys and freedoms of cycling and lets them take it further if they choose, which they generally do.
At the end of the program, each participant goes home with the bike they learned to build. More than 125 youth have passed through the program in four years. After finishing, “A lot of the kids continue to come here as a drop-in, which is fantastic” says Akiyama. “A lot of our alumni have gone on to become youth leaders.” 
Among the returning graduates is Rebecca Sgotto, who was 17 when she learned about Charlie’s through another community organization called StepStones for Youth. “I got to build a bike and I learned [about] tools and also the different parts of the bike, bike skills, the signals. I also liked [that] in the end we got to go on bike tours,” she says.
These days, Sgotto returns to help new participants learn their way around a bike frame and assists with cooking the meals that are an essential part of the program. Her twin sister Nancy Sgotto, who has also graduated from the program, enjoys helping other youth figure out how to install their handlebars, “because I remember when I did my bike.”
“I like how they’re not only an organization, they’re also thinking about connecting with other bike organizations like bike rides or meetings about bikes, and how they should improve [cycling] in our city,” adds Nancy Sgotto, who plans to study business so she can eventually work in marketing.
“A whole lot of different branches have grown out of this cycling thematic,” Akiyama says. Naturally, a Saturday bike club, which rides to locations like the Islands, has sprung up. In the summer of 2012, this was expanded into a formal program called Mobilized Freewheelers, a “project about active transportation and access to space.”
A mapping component, dreamed up by geography major Ben Hirsch and architect/artist Katherine McIlveen, was built into the project, she explains. “The youth were asked to map places that they travel [to] on a regular basis, places they like to go, places they don’t like going, and at the end we would look at how getting access to a bike had increased the places they travelled. A lot of our kids come from Regent Park and Moss Park, and in the initial weeks most of them were staying in that area, but by the end of it some of the kids were riding out to Scarborough.”
The photographs, artwork, maps and diagrams that were collected by the Mobilized Freewheelers in turn gave birth to the UrbanSpace exhibit. “They will be the curators for the event. They’re full of ideas about what they want for food. They want to do a tune-up display. We’re here to help facilitate things, but it’s their ideas that help drive the program forward,” says Akiyama.
“A lot of Charlie’s focus is to be youth-led as much as possible, so I feel like it’s our responsibility to highlight the links that exist and then let the youth follow them. I hope that we can continue turning over bikes and having them come in. Because we are a not-for-profit, it’s all contingent on grants and we are constantly on the search for donated bikes,” she says.
The program is growing.
“In 2012 we’ll have helped put as many youth on the streets as we did in the first three years combined. We’re looking to put 60 kids at least [through the program] next year. There’s more demand than we can cope with!”

Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest bookWe Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food, was a finalist in Taste Canada—The Food Writing Awards 2012.
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