HARTFORD - Lila Rodriguez had her eye Thursday morning on a like-new blood-red Trek bicycle with retro handlebars.
Just a few hours after it was donated to the Urban League, Rodriguez, 18, proudly announced that she had purchased the bike for $50.
"It's mine," she said with a smile, riding the bike in circles around the parking lot of the Urban League on Woodland Street.
Rodriguez works at the Hot Spot Bike Shop, run by six Hartford teens as part of the Urban League's Summer Youth Employment and Learning Program.
In a day care room-turned-repair shop, a rap song blares from a cellphone as Collin Browne and Odingo Quinn, both 17, put new tubing in a donated bike's tires, while Trivon Markland, 17, inspects another bike. After donated bikes are fixed, the teens decide how much to charge for each bike based on how much work was done. Then, they sell them to passersby or people who respond to ads they've placed at Trinity College and on craigslist.
The bike shop was the brainchild of upper management at the Urban League, but the kids have sunk their teeth into it. They've come up with a name, elected positions such as manager and marketing director, learned how to fix every part of a bicycle — and earned a $500 profit in just over a week.
The six teens are paid $8 an hour for 20 hours a week, funded by the Capital Workforce Coalition. On Mondays, they learn how to write résumés, what to expect in a work environment and how to run a business. Tuesday through Friday, the shop is open.
Although they're supervised by Brandon Knight, 20, "the kids do everything from fixing the bikes up to making sales," Knight said.
The Urban League's programming is about "taking people and giving them the skills they need to get ahead," said Nancy Taylor, development director, and a visit to the Hot Spot proves that allowing these kids to run every aspect of a small business is an effective way to instill those skills.
The Summer Youth Employment and Learning Program takes kids aged 16 to 20 and immerses them in real-life job experience, said Richard Brown, interim president and chief executive officer of the Urban League.
The program is split into four tiers — kids in the lower tiers get paid to learn about work, those in the higher tiers actually go into the field.
Giving them exposure to the countless opportunities available to them is extremely important, Taylor said.
"They dream, but they don't always know what to dream," she said. "The more they get access to, the more excitement they bring. They have the thought and knowledge that this is very attainable."
The bike shop introduces owning a business as a career option.
"[The bike shop] encourages entrepreneurship, which creates lots of jobs. It's planting seeds for the community," Brown said.
Not only are they learning a lot, but the kids really like their work, too. Although the program officially ends Aug. 14, they want to make the program permanent.
"They really want to keep it open" and put their work toward the community service hours they need to graduate high school, Knight said.
Rodriguez is going to Manchester Community College in the fall for criminal justice, but she's taking more than just a new bike from her summer job.
"I was excited to learn more because the more you learn, the more you grow," she said. "You learn every day."
•To donate bicycles or unused helmets, call Brandon Knight at 860-550-4643 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The shop at the Urban League at 140 Woodland Street is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., ending this Friday.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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