Wes Whitesell, program director at Village Wrench in West Greenville, practices the adage, if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for the rest of his life—though his is a practice built on chains, pedals, and tires instead of poles, reels, and bait. Since 2013, Whitesell, his team, and the approximately 100 volunteers who service the four locations of these non-profit bicycle repair shops, have provided more than just fast fixes on broken-down bikes. They’re also inflating hearts, minds, and souls with new skills, a sense of purpose, and the salvation that comes from getting your hands a little dirty—for both the people who come to Village Wrench and the volunteers who serve them.
Was this your creation? >>
I’ve been involved since the very beginning, and it was started by our church, the Village Church, and I was the one who raised my hand and said, ‘Hey, I think we can do this. We should do it. And I’ll be fool enough to help lead it!’ It’s been a community effort by our church and other churches and really the neighborhoods that we partner with. Our first was the grassy lot behind West Greenville Baptist Church on Pendleton Street, and we set up on the corner.
Are you from here? >>
I’m from Michigan originally. We have lived in Greenville about 10 years. My wife and I met while we were serving in Africa doing missions work over there. I was in east Africa doing community development and she was in Uganda as a teacher for doctors who were working with AIDS. We lived in Asheville for a couple of years, and then moved to Ireland for a couple of years training missionaries. It was fun, but it was also tough. As our kids grew in number, we decided to come back.
What exactly does Village Wrench do? >>
We do three things. The first is that we provide free bicycle repairs to the communities that we serve in West Greenville. So, the first Saturday of every month people show up at a predetermined spot with a bicycle and without a penny in their pocket, and we fix everything that we can. The second thing is that we have an earnings program where we try to instill in kids and adults the importance of work. So people can get a bicycle from us without spending any money, and what they do is either four hours or eight hours of community service. A bicycle is a commodity and has value, and we think by putting a little bit of skin in the game, you’re more likely to take care of your bicycle. The third thing is that we do community development. We are constantly looking for ways to help build the character of kids and the adults that we serve.
Why did you decide on this, and not, say, a taco truck or something else? >>
It’s funny because this was not our first thing. The first thing we started was a computer club, and we were trying to teach these kids coding, but we had a really tough time maintaining volunteers around that. I’m not a technical person, so I couldn’t lead that anymore, so we said, ‘Well, let’s go back to the drawing board.’ And I’m into bikes, and then we just started noticing here in the neighborhood in West Greenville there were many kids on dilapidated bicycles. My wife and I live in the Sullivan neighborhood, and we’ve raised our kids there. I’ve always been pumping up tires for kids in our front yard, and so in some ways it started kind of 10 years (ago) in my front yard.
“You don’t have to know anything about bicycles or care about biking—you have to have a heart. That’s all that matters: a heart and time. The number-one thing that I’m always wanting people to do is to come and be around the people that we serve.”
Things like this make a huge impact. How can people help? >> You don’t have to know anything about bicycles or care about biking—you have to have a heart. That’s all that matters: a heart and time. The number-one thing that I’m always wanting people to do is to come and be around the people that we serve. I hear people talking about how they want to help the homeless—and I’m just as guilty as anybody else. The biggest thing that I would desire is for people to come and engage the people that they hear about on the news and they see on the side of the road. Or come and help us with the kids’ class. I’m always in need of instructors and teachers who want to be inspirational to them.
What’s next for Village Wrench? >>
We want to have a deeper impact on the people we are already interacting with. For example, we are trying to get teens their first job, and it’s a job unlike any other job in town because we do finance training and character building and training. It’s different than just working at a fast-food restaurant. We want those kids to be set off on a really great trajectory.
I’m in the shop today, and I’m going to clean the toilet, and I’m going to sweep the floor and I’m going to leave and then the real workers are going to come in this afternoon—the guys who are in the shop day in and day out caring for people, working on bikes, and bettering the community. Throughout all these other neighborhoods are other volunteers who do all this other stuff, and it is just a mountain of work compared to the pebble that I represent. They will be the people here, faithfully serving.
Come out to Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery on Thursday, December 7, for Village Wrench’s “Buy One Give One” event, where you can buy a children’s bike and give an under-resourced child a new one. There will be a DJ and room for dancing—so cut a rug for a great cause. For more information, go to villagewrench.org/events.