Seeing useable wealth going into the waste stream while many people were stuck walking or trying to use the bus system, Ren Barger established Tulsa Hub to get people bicycling and moving.
It’s a typical day. You go about your morning routine and plan the day’s upcoming events. You may skip breakfast or grab a quick bite to eat before you hop in your car, never giving a second thought to how you will get to work, school or whatever activity you have scheduled. Maybe you get impatient as you sit in traffic or you decide to enjoy some music as you drive the congested highway, but one thing is certain: you know you will get to your final destination, and you know how you will get back home.
Most of us take our transportation for granted. That is not the case for many people in Tulsa who cannot afford to own a car or are unable to drive for medical or legal reasons.
Ren Barger is the founder and CEO of Tulsa Hub, a nonprofit in Oklahoma that has helped over 800 adults earn reliable transportation through the Adult Cycling Empowerment (A.C.E.) Earn-a-Bike program. And she knows what it’s like to have a gap in her mobility.
While in college, Barger chose cycling as her means of transportation. “Driving my car was way too cost prohibitive and a lot more dangerous,” says Barger. “Since Chicago was a flat, compact city on a grid and had an established cycling culture, it made more sense for me to use a bike as my transportation lifestyle.”
Then, at 21 years old, after a self-contained bike tour of California, a cycling accident broke her neck, seven bones, and had her returning home to Tulsa for full-time care and rehabilitation. Confined to a wheelchair for two months, Barger was forced to rely on others to get around. That’s when she noticed others who had a gap in their mobility.
As she recovered from her injuries, she saw a huge population of people without access to driving as a form of transportation. She also noticed tons of bicycles put out for the trash.
“I saw useable wealth going into the waste stream and tons of people that were stuck walking or trying to use the bus system,” says Barger.
Barger also noticed a significant number of people using cycling as transportation in the downtown area didn’t have quality bikes and access to proper repair. Though there were cycling organizations promoting health, recreation and races, they lacked an educational or transportation component that addressed the rules, rights and responsibilities of bicycle ownership.
At 24 years old with only her life’s passion and an idea of starting a nonprofit, Barger quit her job and started collecting bikes for her no cost Earn-a-Bike program for people who needed reliable means of transportation. “These were folks trying to get back into the workforce and make it to appointments, but for one reason or another couldn’t be autonomous in their transportation,” says Barger.
At the same time, Barger was asked to do a children’s Earn-a-Bike program out of Kendall-Whittier school.
Her program was growing and so were the volunteers and donations of bikes. In the early years, many of the bikes they received needed a significant amount of work, which required specialty tools and education to keep them functioning.
Barger needed the skills to train volunteers to work on the bikes, so she attended the United Bicycle Institute in Oregon and became a certified bicycle mechanic. She also took a frame building class to have an intimate knowledge so she could repair and repurpose parts. “Lisa Regan, the Garden Deva, opened her metal shop to me and my volunteers to repair, repurpose, reutilize as much of the donated equipment as we could because there was no money.”
It wasn’t until Mary McMahon caught the vision from her son, Clark, who volunteered, that Tulsa Hub went from zero to level one. “She made the first donation,” says Barger. “She believed in the transformational power of biking not just for transportation, but for the physical and mental health, the connecting with the community and nature to become stronger and more confident members of society.”
Through all the struggles that come with a start-up nonprofit and through those lean years not taking a salary, Barger stayed focused on her mission because of the incredible people she met and the results she saw in the lives that were transformed through cycling transportation.
“It was so personal to me from having had the experience of being someone who couldn’t walk and just trying to get around,” says Barger. “It was an experience I lived that I wanted to keep making available to people who had a lot less privilege than I did.”
Nine years later, Tulsa Hub still offers all their programs and services to people who need transportation to school, work or social services, even if they can’t pay. But the program isn’t just about giving someone in need reliable transportation. During the application and training time, people are building relationships with the staff and learning what skills they have and what they might want to do.
“I think our participation model is pretty unique because, while there are plenty of other free bike programs, they don’t offer comprehensive, deep relationships, follow up support and training,” says Barger. “At Tulsa Hub, they become part of a community of care, love, and empowerment.”
Larry Mitchell, chairperson of the Tulsa Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee served on Tulsa Hub’s board for three years. He also worked in the shop and saw people come in who were economically disadvantaged.
“I was really impressed with Ren Barger. She had the passion for reaching out to people at the bottom of our social structure,” says Mitchell. “I watched her treat them with respect and dignity. They weren’t just given bikes; they were given love.”
Today, Barger is excited for the future of the organization as they look to operate with the same kind of values they’re looking to instill in their riders. Instead of solely relying on philanthropy and donations, Barger wants to earn more of their own revenue so the staff positions — some of which are held by former Earn-a-Bike participants — pay for themselves.
“It costs about $600 for someone to earn a bike, and they may pay nothing,” says Barger. Plans for revenue include marketing their education classes and program services to different audiences for people who can pay the market value as well as being consultants to train other organizations to do more justice-focused programs that often empower, build relationships and help people un-tap their power inside.
“We want to be the greatest listeners we can be and hear what our constituents really need instead of just deciding what people who are in situations of poverty and despair need,” says Barger. “We want more people who have been part of our programs to get employed at Tulsa Hub, even if it’s part time because it helps them build a resume and learn new skills, and then they can be referred to jobs, and that keeps them on their own path of self-reliance.”
Through this revenue model, Barger won’t have to worry about running out of money to pay their salaries, and the staff will have job security. Other ways to diversify the revenue is through membership so others who believe in the mission can make an investment.
“If people can join as a sustaining member, that guarantees Tulsa Hub will have the cash flow needed to operate the programs and services at a loss. We don’t want to have to exclude people because of that financial barrier.”
Barger’s revenue model seems to be on track with Tulsa Hub winning the contract for maintenance and operations of Tulsa’s Bike Share program set to launch in September.
Aside from generating revenue, Tulsa Hub needs volunteers. Their workshop is open 20 hours a week to the public. Anyone regardless of income can come and work, learn, serve, have fun and participate in the culture of the workshop.
“Ren is a visionary who has pursued her dream and passion and has drawn us along with her,” says Mitchell.
601 W. 3rd St. | Tulsa
Tuesday-Thursday: 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Shop Night (Tuesday and Thursday): 7-9 p.m.
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