Smiles 4 Miles, a nonprofit organization started last summer, has already given away more than a hundred free bikes to kids across the country. And with the help of donations and sponsorships, its mission is showing no signs of slowing down.
"Cycling was like my outlet for not getting in trouble at home," Bed-Stuy-based founder John Shackelford told BK Reader. Shackelford, a Washington D.C. native, has been cycling for more than 12 years.
The idea for Smiles 4 Miles came to Shackelford during a bike tour last year. The 20-day journey went from Mobile, Alabama, up to Washington D.C., along the route of the Underground Railroad. The country's racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd inspired Shackelford and fellow cyclists to give back to communities of color.
"I wanted to let people know that I'm a prime example of a person living in the hood who got out and used cycling as their way out," Shackelford said. During last year's tour, Shackelford gave away 40 free bikes in Georgia and another 40 in D.C.
Shackelford partly self-funds the organization, and sponsors include Cannondale Bikes, Pearl Izumi, and Easton Cycling.
For the past year, Shackelford has been planning his dream of an 8,000-mile tour starting in New York and stopping in ten states and 25 cities across the country giving out free bikes to kids. A GoFundMe has been set up with a goal of raising $20,000 to supplement the costs of bike gear and other travel costs for the tour, dubbed the Smiles 4 Miles Tour.
"Our sole purpose is to establish the next generation of cyclists and empower every kid to experience a sense of independence while maintain a healthy lifestyle," the GoFundMe reads.
Shackelford hopes to leave an impact on the communities visited during the tour. "I want them, you know the kid or the family who's getting the free bike, to always know that you have this community shop, or you can call this person if your bike is broken down."
Shackelford initially began cycling competitively in "underground" races for street cred, but eventually began competing in more professional races to challenge himself. He found that the world of cycling was overwhelming white and upper-class. "I just want to see more people like myself get into these races and prosper," Shackelford said.
To Shackelford, cycling is more than just a hobby or means of transportation. He says owning a bike can dramatically transform the life of a young person, creating job opportunities and improving both their physical and mental health. "People say 'Oh, it's a bike, it's a toy,' but it's so much bigger than that."
A long-term goal of the organization is to have an office space, "where we can constantly push out bikes for free and plan events on a monthly level," Shackelford said.
Though the organization is still in its infancy, it has already made a profound impact. The work that Smiles 4 Miles did in D.C. spawned the creation of another nonprofit which will give bike tours to local high school students.
"That might have never happened if we hadn't given them those bikes," Shackelford said. "So it's kind of like a domino effect like you do something good for someone, they create something amazing out of it."