It’s easy to miss the small bike shop at the base of the Kalihi Valley, but there’s a lot going on inside.
Bike parts hang from the walls and young people laugh above a radio’s thumping beat.
Neighborhood kids, mostly boys ages 7 to 16, pour into the shop after school. They come from Kalihi’s working class families and immigrant communities.
Here they learn bicycle mechanics skills, and after putting in 12 hours of work, they can build a bike of their own.
But there’s more going on than just bike work. This is a place where youths who live in the area’s public housing projects rub elbows. A place where older boys mentor younger ones. A place that offers what some of them may not get at home: a chance to listen and a chance to be heard.
Working with donated used bikes and parts, the Kalihi Valley Instructional Bike Exchange churns out refurbished two-wheelers to be sold at the shop or at Re-use Hawaii. Since it opened in 2005, more than 3,000 bikes have been donated, reconstructed and sold.
“We use bikes as the vehicle, bicycle mechanics as the vehicle, to bring out this new culture,” said Kevin Faller, KVIBE’s program manager and youth specialist.
Faller took over shop operations in September along with Jordan Ragasa, the program’s community outreach organizer. It is part of the nonprofit organization Kokua Kalihi Valley. Under their leadership, KVIBE’s youth outreach initiatives have expanded to encompass nutrition, mental health and civics lessons.
Situated directly between two of the state’s public housing complexes, Kalihi Valley Homes and The Towers of Kuhio Park, the shop attracts kids from both complexes.
Rivalries between gangs affiliated with each complex can cause tension, but “we are really adamant about putting away those kinds of rivalries,” Ragasa said.
Faller and Ragasa call it “temporary amnesty” and insist everyone is treated with respect.
Ragasa and Faller openly converse with the kids about public housing and their own socioeconomic status.
“Just asking ‘Why are we living KPT?’ or ‘Why are we living in public housing?’ that’s one question we like to ask from time to time,” Faller said.
The youths are challenged to transform their diet in a community that struggles with food access.
“I’m from Kalihi but I never thought of Kalihi as being a food desert,” Ragasa said.
Today, he sees that fresh produce is out of reach for many residents, especially for those who don’t have a car.
At Dole Middle School and Kaewai Elementary School, both across the street from KVIBE, 83 percent of students qualify for the state’s free or reduced-price lunch program. Nearby after-school snack options include two convenience stores and a Jack in the Box.
“Ancestral knowledge is very key. That whole protocol of name, home, ancestor opens up the Pandora’s box of conversations.” — Kevin Faller
Last September, Ragasa took the kids to VegFest Oahu. Back at the bike shop, they started growing vegetables in a raised-bed garden. The shop’s newest acquisition is a blender bike — a stationary bike that, when peddled, powers a blender.
One middle school student used to arrive at the shop armed with two Monster drinks and three spam musubis. Today he’s the blender bike champion, replacing musubis with smoothies.
“When we talk about our diets, they also talk about their family and their cultural foods,” Ragasa said, explaining that food can represent cultural heritage, but can also be an indication of poverty. “They bring it up and they talk about the different diseases that are in their family.”
The shop opens and closes its day with culture circles, where participants stand and state their name, home, how they feel and the name an ancestor.
Some speak about ancestors from the Philippines, from Chuuk or from other islands in Micronesia and the Pacific.
“Ancestral knowledge is very key,” Faller said. “That whole protocol of name, home, ancestor opens up the Pandora’s box of conversations.”
For some young people from Kalihi’s immigrant communities, talking about ancestors can be traumatic. Faller remembers one day when a father came by the shop and was brought to tears after sharing the story of his family’s migration from Chuuk.
“I believe that’s what we’re doing this for,” Faller said. “It’s these stories that aren’t told, aren’t seen, aren’t recorded.”
In the fall of 2015, KVIBE participants were part of an initiative to transform Kamehameha IV Road where the shop is located.
Cars used to fly past the shop, traveling down the then-four-lane road that connects Likelike Highway to North School Street. Now that it’s a two-lane road with bike lanes and a turning lane, bicyclists and pedestrians have safer access to the two public schools and a nearby park.
The kids still talk about their involvement in the process, which included testifying at a neighborhood board meeting and sign waving.
“It reinforced the idea to our youth that you can be politically involved,” Ragasa said.
To continue the youths’ engagement in community planning, Ragasa and the KVIBE kids will attend an upcoming city planning meeting about Kalihi’s rapidly developing future as an urban center.
Nephi Legg, 15, a Farrington High School student and a regular at the shop, sees KVIBE’s contribution to Kalihi as part of a larger health initiative.
“We’re about what’s good for the community, so we’re trying to get people on bikes,” Legg said.