Bonding through bikes

Above: Dustin LaFont and his wife Kim at Front Yard Bikes. Dustin, the founder of the nonprofit, says his wife’s help is essential to keep the program running smoothly.

Dustin LaFont looked at the kids standing in his front yard. There were 15 of them. His afternoon bonding session with two of his adolescent south Baton Rouge neighbors had drawn a crowd. When the 23-year-old LSU graduate moved into this neighborhood, he had just been searching for cheap rent, honestly. But now, surrounded by so many eager faces, he had an idea.

It all started when LaFont, a bicycling enthusiast, first noticed the bikes his young neighbors Rejay and Austin Wilson were riding on were in need of repair. Knowing he could help fix them, LaFont and the kids began to meet regularly to do just that. That’s when friends began to notice and began gathering on LaFont’s lawn.

Giving Back 3
The shop on West Roosevelt Street

Fast-forward five years and that initial group of 15 young people has grown to 140. LaFont’s idea has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit organization, through which he teaches children as young as 6 in Old South Baton Rouge to build and repair bikes. He’s also teaching them respect and he’s teaching them character—character that LaFont says is already inside of them.

“We believe all our kids have inherent character,” he says. “In our multi-media age, people are telling them who they are. In a world where teenagers are measured by Instagram followers and Facebook likes, we’re just trying to help them find out who they really are on their own.”

Those life lessons happen while working together on bikes. Three programs—earn a bike, build a bike, and Friday rides—are the essential offerings of the nonprofit. Kids can earn credits for time “worked,” which convert to cash and can be used to purchase bikes all their own.

Rejay Wilson and Demarcus Ricard
Rejay Wilson and Demarcus Ricard

Every Friday afternoon, LaFont leads a group of program participants on a bike ride “field trip” that makes stops at parks, museums, libraries and other nearby spots. LaFont says an average of 30 kids take part in these weekly rides.

Formerly a teacher at Westdale Middle School, LaFont, who has a master’s degree in education, is now working full time for Front Yard Bikes. He was able to quit his teaching job thanks to the Special Children’s Foundation and a private donor who agreed to pay his salary until August 2015.

Byron Ennis works on a bike.
Byron Ennis works on a bike.

Currently, Front Yard Bikes operates out of a run-down warehouse with no electricity, limited running water, and no heating or cooling system. Rent is cheap, though, and the location is near the neighborhoods the kids live in. The warehouse has been painted and there’s a community garden out back. More recently, though, the nonprofit has partnered with BREC and plans to relocate to a newer building on Terrace Street, about a mile from the current location. LaFont hopes to make the move by
the start of school in August.

Though the new building comes with electricity and running water, LaFont’s desire to grow doesn’t stop there. He would like to see—one day—expanding the program even more to teach mechanics, welding and woodshop.

For now, though, LaFont is thankful he has what he calls his “dream job.”

“We have the best kids in the world,” he says. “Sometimes they come here not knowing they’re the best, but we definitely don’t let them leave not knowing.”

How you can help:

 Front Yard Bikes accepts used bikes in all conditions. The shop also sells bikes to the public.

Front Yard Bikes is also searching for dedicated volunteers.