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Bicycling Down the Path to Economic Opportunity

Written by Amanda Maher

For many women who have experienced traumatic life experiences – abuse, incarceration, addiction – getting back on their feet can prove to be a challenge. In Philadelphia, women are finding support, and employment opportunities, through a bicycling-based nonprofit.

Gearing Up serves women from several partner organizations, such as the Interim House, the Kirkbride Center and the Gaudenzia Washington House, that serve women who have dealt with these issues. The goal is to provide regular bicycle rides that help to address the women’s physical, emotional and social needs. At the same time, the program provides women with practical bike skills, such as proper safety procedures and flat tire repair. Throughout any given year, anywhere from 150 to 200 women participate in one of Gearing Up’s cycling programs.

While the camaraderie and skill building were important components of Gearing Up, many program participants struggled with how or where to find employment. So when Gearing Up Founder Kristin Gavin met Wash Cycle Laundry CEO Gabriel Manujando through the Philadelphia bicycling community, it seemed as though the stars had aligned.

Wash Cycle Laundry, a budding Philadelphia-based laundry company featured in our most recent What Works Case Study, provides employment opportunities for disadvantaged residents—and importantly, uses bicycles as its service fleet. Wash Cycle Laundry was growing and needed to hire new, skilled bicyclists, and Gearing Up had relationships with competent cyclists who were looking for work; Wash Cycle’s welfare-to-work criteria seemed a perfect match for Gearing Up clients.

The relationship began as a pilot, with Wash Cycle hiring a few Gearing Up cyclists. And as is typical in the social justice realm, hiring vulnerable residents has not been without its challenges. But Kristin and Gabriel’s teams have formed such a strong relationship that they are able to identify problems as they arise and collaborate to find solutions. If an employee isn’t showing up on time for work, for instance, Gearing Up has the resources to investigate and understand why that may be the case, and provide additional intervention, such as help finding reliable child care, as necessary. For its part, the Wash Cycle team has worked hard to understand and accommodate the issues its employees may face.

The success of this partnership is also a result of the bicycling culture, which shapes both Wash Cycle and Gearing Up. When Gearing Up women are hired for jobs at Wash Cycle, the work already feels familiar. And now, with a handful of Gearing Up mentees gainfully employed at Wash Cycle, the company has a community of women who benefit from their shared experiences in the Gearing Up program. These women, who once felt disconnected and helpless, now have a common bond and all look out for one another on the job.

“Women love it. They’re empowered. That’s one of the really unique things that Gabriel and his team do – they inspire trust and they empower,” says Gavin. Gearing Up women are recovering from very difficult experiences, but they’re motivated for positive change. To be this motivated and have an employer who trusts, empowers and treats these women with respect “is like hitting the jackpot,” she adds.

To learn more about Wash Cycle Laundry, read What Works: Philadelphia’s Wash Cycle Laundry Hires Vulnerable Residents.

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