It was 2008, and Jim Gardner, a PhD engineer with four previous startups under his belt, was turning 40. He wondered whether the world was any better off because he was in it.
When he dropped off a donation at a homeless shelter, the sight of a man on an unsafe, rickety bicycle gave Gardner an insight that birthed Good Karma Bikes. “I realized that this was how this person got to the doctor, got to work, got to case management, got to whatever he needed, because it was safe, free, independent transportation,” he says. “I realized that a safe bike would get him anywhere he needs to go.”
He decided to see if he could help out himself. So he went down to St. James Park and began fixing bikes for homeless people there. “It took me about two weeks to see what was going on was not about bicycles at all,” Gardner recalls. “I saw genuine humanitarianism and philanthropy from homeless people, and I noticed that the ones who were the most generous had the best fortune. That’s where we got the name for Good Karma Bikes.”
Branching out from St. James Park, Gardner began fixing bikes at centers that feed the needy. Soon after, he began attracting volunteers from bicycling clubs like the Western Wheelers Bicycle Club and Almaden Cycle Touring Club, and he gained financial support from Barry Swenson Builder, Bank of America, the California State Automobile Association, and the San Jose Rotary Club.
Today, Good Karma Bikes is a full-service shop that serves about 18,000 people annually. Holding hundreds of safety checks, they don’t charge homeless or low-income individuals for repairs. They’re on a mission. “We work in the medium of bicycles to provide individuals with life-transforming opportunities,” says Gardner. In addition to refurbished bikes, they offer workstation rentals, onsite mobile repair services, and classes on bicycle repair and maintenance.
When he first opened his bike shop, Gardner began working with people in homeless recovery and learned that many of them had been in the foster care system. From there, he discovered some astounding statistics. “Approximately 50 percent of emancipated foster care youth are homeless by age 25,” he says. “Half of all females who have been in foster care will be teen-pregnant at least once, only one percent will graduate college, and 27 percent of California’s inmates have been in foster care.” But Gardner found there’s a good deal of research showing that those statistics are significantly reduced with the completion of 30 units of college credit.
This led Good Karma Bikes to organize their College Outreach and Opportunity Program for teens who have aged out of Santa Clara County’s foster care system, to prevent them from becoming homeless or incarcerated. “What we have them experience is working part-time in our shop, going to college, and doing community service,” Gardner explains. “We require all three.” He says that there comes a point for the young people he coaches where they make a U-turn. “They tell me that they actually start to like school. They become confident in their work skills. They gain self-esteem.”
The bicycles at Good Karma Bikes are sourced from donations and impounds from the Valley Transportation Authority, as well as universities and corporate campuses. The vehicles are rehabilitated by the co-op youth and volunteers, and the money made from selling bicycles is reinvested in the company’s programs.
For Gardner, what’s important is the role the bike shop plays in the community. “Our main impact is on preventing homelessness and incarceration,” he says, “but Good Karma Bikes is also a conduit for the community to invest in an even better community by participating.” To participate, community members can volunteer, make a donation, connect the organization with a grant—or buy a bike.
“The main point is that we are not about bikes,” he sums up. “We are about good karma.”
Cindy Ahola, Vice President of Operations
Cindy Ahola first saw Jim Gardner repairing bikes at Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen when she was its executive director. She now works with Jim at Good Karma Bikes, organizing its Logistics and Transportation department.
“Until meeting Gardner,” recalls Ahola, “I hadn’t understood how important bicycles were to those who rely on them for their transportation. You can buy used bikes from Craigslist, but we give one bike away for every bike we sell. Those who can’t afford bicycles can volunteer and earn them. The revenue goes right back into our services. That’s why we consider our customers to be a very special kind of donor.”
Craig Jeong, Volunteer Mechanic
Craig Jeong calls himself a “wheelman” because he loves building and truing the wheels that go on refurbished bicycles. He found out about Good Karma Bikes from an Almaden Cycle Touring Club friend. He says his cousin, a volunteer at Turning Wheels for Kids, inspired him to volunteer.
“I want to help others,” Jeong explains. “Good Karma Bikes works with foster youth, and I want to help give them a chance to get on their feet. I was raised with what I now know was privilege in Palo Alto. I’m here because I want these kids to have a chance to get ahead.”
Hector Lopez, Assistant Manager
Hector Lopez, a part-time San Jose City College student, answered a Good Karma Bikes’ Craigslist ad seeking a volunteer bike mechanic. Lopez joined up, and 18 months later, he was hired as a paid staff member. Able to help Spanish speakers, Lopez pays careful attention to walk-in customers and their needs. He quickly diagnoses a bicycle’s problem and usually makes the repair while the customer waits.
“I see a lot of kindness here,” says Lopez. “Homeless people with wrecked-up bikes come here, and we have volunteers who don’t mind getting their hands dirty and putting in a lot of time to fix them up.”
Written by Diane Solomon
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 9.1 “Find”