Remember your first taste of childhood freedom, cruising down the street on your Schwinn or bombing down a hill to the sound of a baseball card hitting against the spokes. As a kid, learning to ride a bike was a rite of passage that started with training wheels and ended with more independence. White Oak Bicycle Co-op, a nonprofit based in Red Bank, Tennessee, works with organizations to bring this experience to youth throughout the Chattanooga region while offering a low-cost mode of transportation to those who need it.
Launched in 2020 by Christian Gonzales, Andrew Jones and Blake Pierce, this volunteer-run cooperative promotes health and wellbeing by increasing access to bicycles and bike repair services – with a special focus on children, low-income households and persons experiencing homelessness.
White Oak operates out of two Red Bank locations – a repair shop where volunteers rehabilitate donated bicycles, and a storage facility on Dayton Boulevard where bikes are selected for distribution. Volunteers take in an average of 15 to 20 bikes a week and can hold approximately 400 bicycles at any given time.
Inside the storage center, bikes of all sizes and styles line the walls. A box fan hums and works overtime to cool the large space. To the right, three bikes are being held for a schoolteacher who requested them for her students – flagged with a sign that reads “Dupont Elementary.” Pierce inspects one of the bikes alongside a White Oak mechanic.
Now approaching its third year of operation, the nonprofit is becoming a community staple and has seen an outpouring of support from area community members.
“It goes back to Chattanooga’s generosity … There are many ways people can participate in what we’re doing. Simply tell someone who has a bike, or is donating a bike, or has a child growing out of their bike, that we can take it and [donate] it to kids who need one through our elementary schools,” Pierce says.
Pierce’s passion for outdoor recreation grew after teaching exercise science and public health at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He’s made it his personal mission to help address Tennessee’s increasingly high rate of pediatric obesity.
“Children are unfortunately not being as active as they used to be, and we have high rates of obesity that continue to increase. We’re using the bicycle to address these issues. And what we’re finding out is that it’s working,” Pierce says.
White Oak has extended its mission beyond recreational bicycling by partnering with charities like the Salvation Army and Metropolitan Ministries to offer an affordable mode of transportation to those in low-income households and people experiencing homelessness. Right now, there is a high demand for bicycles as means to get around – especially for those who are trying to take the next steps to find and secure stable housing.
White Oak partners with social-service organizations to distribute free, refurbished bicycles to those who need reliable transportation options. They also provide bicycle repair services at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen on a bi-weekly basis, as well as on-the-spot repairs through their mobile shop.
Pierce and team hope to continue this mission for many years. They are in the process of looking for a new facility that will allow for an operational expansion and educational programming on bike riding, road safety rules and bicycle maintenance and repair.
“As we work to combine access to bicycles with the educational component, the organization will grow substantially,” Pierce says.
“And as Chattanooga continues to move toward building more places for people of all ages and abilities to ride safely, we’ll see some amazing things happen. A local movement for bicycling is about to occur.”
Learn more at WhiteOakBicycle.org.