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The Bicycle Experience

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Tucson--a town filled with good people who are motivated to do good deeds--is home to a phenomenal number of nonprofit organizations whose members take remarkably progressive and creative approaches to helping the community. BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage), which started almost 15 years ago, is one of the best examples of how a simple philosophy--help people to help themselves--can be parlayed into effective societal change.

Ingrid Cardon Downey, a native of Tucson who was a fan of BICAS long before becoming an actual board member, doesn't claim to be a hard-core bicyclist.

"I bike around on a gearless Schwinn that my mother used to ride," Downey laughs. "I'm no bicycle nut, but I like to experience life from a bike rather than in car. ... It's the perfect speed to actually look around, take it all in. Plus, with my mom's old Schwinn, I can wear a skirt and high heels, no problem. And you get the best parking! I know there are a lot of really serious bikers in Tucson," Downey concludes, "but I just appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the bicycle experience."

The simplicity of the bicycle experience is one thing, but it was the simplicity of the bicycle itself that made it the perfect vehicle for BICAS founders' aspirations.

"From my perspective," says Downey, "I think the founders--and (original BICAS director) Kim Young, specifically--were interested in using the bike as a tool for changing society, really. And specifically for empowering the homeless, not just with transportation by giving them one of their own, but by teaching a skill that could bring them greater freedom. It was never like, 'Here, have a bike'; it was always, 'Here's an opportunity; here's an open shop; here are tools, parts ... come in and fix your own, or learn how to make a bike.' You know, not a hand-out, but a hand-up."

Downey became a board member a year-and-a-half ago, when BICAS was going through an organizational change as Young and other founding members began to "go their ways," as Downey says.

"I was always so impressed with her (Young's) leadership of the organization," says Downey, "so when the time came that I had time and BICAS was going through some changes, I thought, now is the time for me to step up and do what I can to help. As of last August, there's really a lot of new staff, and it's been really fun because it's given me a deep appreciation for how much BICAS is loved by the community.

"People have so many positive things to say about BICAS," Downey continues. "I think that might be because Tucson is such a great town for bicycling--not only weather-wise, but also because people here are really interested in examining their transportation modes and trying to make those more sustainable decisions to be more healthy. And people really like the fact that BICAS is out there teaching people of all ages a practical skill. Once you know how to fix, maintain and even build a bicycle, there are lots more things you can do."

BICAS--located at 44 W. Sixth St. --not only teaches those skills to anyone who wants to learn through sliding-scale workshops (every Thursday and Saturday at 1 and 4 p.m.); they also open the bike shop itself to the community. For just a few dollars an hour, you can actually rent a workspace within the BICAS facility and use their tools. (Helpful bike mechanics are also on-hand to advise.) If you can't afford the fee, you can arrange a work-trade by volunteering your time in exchange for space.

According to Downey, Tucsonans are great about donating old bikes and bike parts to BICAS. Funding, on the other hand, is harder to come by.

"In the beginning (of BICAS)," says Downey, "another focus was on sharing our abundance, taking bikes and bike parts to Mexico or other poor communities in the United States that could benefit from having bicycles. But we've been having tough times since last August in getting on our feet again financially. Our interest and our goal is to find the money to re-establish those programs. It's also important to pay our staff a living wage, and that's going back to the BICAS founders, who really felt that to make a social change you have to pay people a living wage."

Which brings us to BICAS' most important fund-raiser, the ninth annual BICAS Bicycle Art Auction, taking place from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21 at Flash Gallery, located at 306 E. Congress St.

"Our first priority," says Downey, "is of course to get bikes back into being bikes, but there are always certain parts and pieces that are beyond being useful, and that's where making art out of unusable bicycle parts comes into play. Some things are practical--you might have seen our garbage cans and bike racks around town--and some are just fun.

"Artists will donate their work to us, and the community gets really excited about it ... there are always so many pieces to fall in love with. ... People are so happy when they get to take something home."

And taking something home means you just made an important contribution to BICAS' rent, utilities, insurance, the afore-mentioned living wage and the long-term survival of BICAS itself.

For more information about the event, call BICAS at 628-7950.

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