dustin lafont trio 2 cnnheroes
CNN Heroes: Dustin LaFont
07:17 - Source: CNN
Baton Rouge, LA CNN  — 

Despite overwhelming adversity, there is a resounding spirit of survival and hope for people living in the Bayou State.

“We choose to live by joy and community more than look at horrible issues and challenges that sometimes feel too big for us to take on,” said Dustin LaFont, whose nonprofit, Front Yard Bikes, supports hundreds of students in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, every year as they pedal towards a brighter future. “It’s very important in Cajun culture to take care of your neighbor.”

Ranked as one of the poorest states in America, Louisiana often bears the brunt of coastal storms and hurricanes. And on top of sky-high poverty and crime rates, the compounding effect has been devastating for residents – especially for young people. In Baton Rouge, roughly one in every four residents lives in poverty.

“Our kids in South Louisiana grow up knowing they have to be resilient from day one,” LaFont said. “You can go from having a house, having a family, and then all of a sudden, it’s gone in a blink of an eye. Our mission is to create safe spaces that empower our kids to learn about their intrinsic worth as they learn, grow, and build.”

At Front Yard Bikes, students work to build their own bicycle, learning skills like mechanics, welding and cycling safety, while receiving mentoring, academic support, and job training opportunities.

For LaFont, a bike was always a vehicle of opportunity. Growing up in the city of Houma, he and his brother often biked to and from school when there was no ride available. The passion continued into his college days when he’d bike to and from classes at Louisiana State University to save money on gas and parking. He would also spend hours tinkering with his bike in his front lawn.

In 2010, inspired by local kids who gathered in his yard for tips, tools, and bike parts, LaFont formed what neighbors called the “Front Yard Bike Shop.” He later formalized the group as an official nonprofit.

LaFont worked with AmeriCorps before becoming a full-time middle school history teacher, and every year, he saw the numbers of participants in his bike program increasing. As a teacher, he also saw how desperately young people in his classroom needed a safe after-school space. And he knew firsthand how crucial early support and intervention was.

“I had low reading. I struggled in school,” LaFont said. “But I had a mother who was my hero from day one. It was always these amazing affirmations to fortify a positive identity of how you are as a person.”

As a teacher, LaFont wanted to provide the same support for his students, but too often, he saw kids falling through the cracks instead.

“Nothing was more infuriating than seeing a kid in my class and then one day, that desk is empty because they were expelled,” he said. “I really wanted to teach that kid. I wanted to see them get to that accomplishment.”

CNN Hero Dustin LaFont

After two years, LaFont turned Front Yard Bikes into a full-time operation and left his teaching job to dedicate all his time to it.

“That was quite a risk,” he said. “But I knew this was an opportunity you had once.”

Today, Front Yard Bikes is headquartered in a brightly painted building adjacent to the community park that LaFont and students from his program helped renovate.

“We had to put a ton of energy into it,” LaFont said. “It needed a lot of tender love and care. Students showed up and learned to saw, drill, measure, cut. They learned to paint, design, and plan. And they built their very own program from scratch.”

Dozens of kids now gather after school in this safe place to ride, play, and help out in the garden.

“Pretty much any kid can find a place here to belong,” LaFont said. “But the fact that they built their park, there’s ownership over it. They take care of their park.”

LaFont recently opened a bike repair shop where older students can get certified in mechanics, receive hands-on training and gain employment at the store to help build their resume for future work. The group also takes weekly rides to area businesses and landmarks to learn about the city and its opportunities.

“Young people have lost their lives in Baton Rouge,” said Hillary Greer, a middle school principal who worked with LaFont when he was a teacher and now sees students thriving in the program. “When they’re with him, they have a safe place to go and a safe place to be after school. And that, to me, is saving lives.”

Front Yard Bikes serves nearly 400 young people a year. To date, 50 students have been certified in mechanics, and 2,000 kids have benefited from the program.

“People say to me, ‘Thank you for keeping kids busy and out of the streets,’” LaFont said. “I cringe at that because it says kids are the problems to be solved. But they are our greatest resource for our community challenges; they are problem solvers, not liabilities. My constant fight is trying to get people to see who our kids really are … and to see that they have something to offer right now.”

Want to get involved? Check out the Front Yard Bikes website and see how to help.

To donate to Front Yard Bikes via GoFundMe, click here