02:37 - Source: CNN
WeCycle program empowers inner-city youth

Story highlights

Student teacher Shawn Walton noticed his pupils lacked outlets for exercise

The avid cyclist and former early childhood education major was inspired to get kids biking

WeCycle program provides lessons in bike safety, agriculture and stress reduction

CNN  — 

As an education student at Morehouse College, Shawn Walton rode his bicycle six miles from East Atlanta to West Atlanta every day, arriving on campus invigorated and ready to learn.

Meanwhile, during his time as a student teacher, the 30-year-old was discouraged by overcrowded public school classrooms and the sight of students with plenty of energy but few outlets for exercise.

“I felt like they needed to be outside,” he said. “I felt that their energy needed to be worked off through physical exercise.”

He also noticed a lack of community involvement from teachers and other school staff members, something he feels is a necessity.

“Allowing kids to see their leaders in the community brings a level of respect,” he said. “It takes a village, and the village is usually defined by proximity.”

The Atlanta native always saw himself with his own classroom, teaching students his way. So after earning a degree in early childhood education in 2012, Walton used his ideas to build the kind of institution he’d envisioned. Now, his hobby and preferred mode of transportation has become his life’s work.

Headquartered in the predominantly black neighborhood of West End Atlanta, WeCycle Atlanta is a nonprofit organization that creates access to bicycles and local produce, as well as providing agricultural education to youth and low-income residents.

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To kick-start the program, Walton invested his own money to purchase bicycles and recruited neighborhood children to participate in the first session, which took place in the garage of Walton’s home.

“I bought about 12 bicycles and asked some kids, and they said they wanted to be a part of the program and earn some bicycles,” he said.

WeCycle participants plant a pallet garden

The students were challenged with renovating the Ashview Community Garden near Walton’s home. Established 20 years ago, it had been neglected for nearly a year when Walton stumbled upon it.

For three weeks, Walton and his students revived it by planting tomatoes, squash and other fruits and vegetables. For their efforts, Walton rewarded them with their own bicycles, and months later, the students were able to share their first harvest with family, friends and members of the community.

The work that the first youth class put into the community garden became the foundation for WeCycle’s #40HoursAndABike program. Four students, ranging in age from 10 to 18 years old, are selected once a month to participate.

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They are required to complete 40 hours of classes using WeCycle’s W.H.E.E.L.S. model, which stands for work ethic, health, economics, environment, leadership and sustainability.

Walton says that limiting class size to four students allows WeCycle’s team to give each student the attention they need. “Smaller classrooms are important,” he said.

The program ran out of Walton’s garage for nearly two years but had to relocate because of his growing family. Then the Ashview Community Garden was closed amid the expansion of the Atlanta Beltline walking and bicycling trail.

It was then, Walton says, that he decided it was time for WeCycle to find a permanent location. He began an online crowdfunding campaign to raise $20,000. Two additional campaigns followed, and within a year, WeCycle reached its goal.

Shawn Walton leads kids on neighborhood bike rides

His team now consists of five to seven people; all but two are volunteers. Walton and a bicycle mechanic teach students how to repair their bicycles. Walton also leads group and community bike rides.

Other team members include volunteers such as a zero waste specialist, who teaches the importance of reusing everything in the home and how not to have a wasteful impact on the community.

An agricultural educator teaches students how to build pallet gardens so they can grow food year-round at home. Walton also brings in a yoga instructor who empowers the students to meditate and focus.

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“They know that once they grow their own food, they’re healthier, and they can keep money in their pockets and in their homes so they can invest in themselves and in their community,” Walton said.

Most of WeCycle’s bicycles are donated by neighbors or individuals who support his vision. The newer bikes, which are given to new graduates, are donated by a private corporate sponsor.

“The partners are so instrumental because we not only want to show kids how to create access to bicycles and access to agriculture, but we also want to show them how to work together to solve a problem,” Walton said.

The program is popular with neighborhood children, Walton said, and he’s routinely approached by them to join. Participation is on a first come, first served basis. Once four students are chosen for each session, there is a wait list for the next session.

Most of his students are from low-income or single-parent homes, but Walton says they’re the best of the best.

“Our students are persistent, eager, talented, bright and beautiful, and they’re willing to learn,” he said. “No matter what other people say about them, they’re bright, and they’re smart, and I love to work with them.”

Twelve-year-old Keeven Hindsman smiles as he talks about the best part of learning from “Mr. Shawn,” as he is affectionately called by the neighborhood children, and says Walton will “care for you like your parents.” He says Walton taught him how to be a leader.

Solana Franklin, 12, now prides herself on knowing the importance of protecting the environment and her body. She takes what she learned at WeCycle and encourages her friends and family to do the same.

The students are not the only ones who admire the work Walton is doing. The community has also taken notice.

“Shawn is one of the young up and coming leaders in the community,” said Rashid Nuri, founder and CEO of the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, which partners with WeCycle in its community gardening efforts.

“His level of engagement in this West Side community is amazing, immense and worthy of respect.”

In three years, 75 graduates have come through WeCycle’s program, which Walton hopes to take global.

“WeCycle Miami, WeCycle Ghana, WeCycle Los Angeles. We want to take that worldwide.”