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Portland coffee, bike shop celebrates two years of empowering at-risk youth

"Taking the time to invest in who they are individually and who they can be in the future is something that they may have never had."

PORTLAND, Ore. — Coffee and bicycles are two Portland staples. On Saturday, a local shop that specializes in both celebrated its two-year anniversary, but there’s more to Braking Cycles than meets the eye.

The shop on Southeast Powell Boulevard is the home of an apprenticeship program that teaches at-risk youth tangible job skills as either a barista or bike mechanic.

“Really what we’re doing is taking what Portland celebrates most, that’s bikes and coffee, and combining those tools and then also partnering it with a real social justice issue that impacts all of us. And that’s homelessness,” said executive director Rhona Mahl.

Under the Transitional Youth umbrella, Braking Cycles gives teens at risk of homelessness and kids in the foster care system a safe place to develop a work ethic that they can bring into the real world. It also offers them something they may not always get at home.

“It’s providing a place where, not only where they can learn these jobs skills, but it’s providing a safe place where we can just love them and tell them about how beautiful and amazing and valuable, they are,” Mahl said.  

On Saturday, donors, volunteers and workers celebrated two years of serving caffeinated concoctions, spiffing up spokes and giving at-risk youth an opportunity to create a new cycle of self-sufficiency.

Braking Cycles started with a single cold brew bicycle in 2013 and has grown to a bustling brick and mortar shop. Since opening two years ago, more than 40 people have graduated from the program.

“The whole basis of this program is self-sufficiency and breathing in encouragement in these kids’ lives,” barista Lindsey Gills said.

Gill works with the young apprentices, who range from 14 to 21 years old. She says the program goes beyond teaching job and basic life skills. It encourages kids to know their worth and look toward the future.

Program mentors get to know the apprentices on a deeper level. That way they can help the teens find future jobs that best fit their personalities.

“Taking the time to invest in who they are individually and who they can be in the future is something that they may have never had in somebody else and something we all need,” Gill said.

Just a few feet away from Gill at the coffee counter you will find Bike Shop manager Allen Reinert. He teaches teens everything from fixing a flat to complex repairs.

“We’re a full-service bike shop,” Reinert said.

Perhaps even more valuable than tangible job skills, Reinert says, is that these kids leave the 12-week program with a sense of responsibility and belonging.

“They really felt a strong sense of community and they’ve maintained relationships that they started here and have continued outside of the shop,” he said. “So, I think for a lot of them, that’s been a big part of it too.”

Braking Cycles has a cool modern look, made possible by multiple community donors who have given their time and resources to decorating the shop. Alongside the sleek counters and Portland aesthetic, it is hard to ignore the copper accents filling out the space.

There are more than 148,000 pennies to decorate the floors and fixtures at Braking Cycles. While it adds a stylish flare to the shop, the pennies serve a purpose.

“Just like homeless people and homeless youth are stepped over on the street on the sidewalks, pennies are stepped over on sidewalks,” Mahl said. “And so, we’re really trying to send a message to the community to show what value is. There’s absolute beauty and value in what we step over every day.”

Because just like kids, when pennies get the care and attention they deserve; they can really shine.

“When you’re surrounded by that kind of unconditional high regard – it empowers them to say, ‘Yes, I can do this. Yes, I can show up. I can go beyond the place that I’ve always been told I can achieve.’ And so, we’re excited to serve these young people and just love them,” Mahl said.

Breaking Cycles is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 9 p.m. until 3 p.m. You can find the shop at 3354 SE Powell Blvd. in Portland.

The shop serves an array of café drinks, is a full-service bike shop, and sells bicycles as well.

You can learn more about Braking Cycles and Transitional Youth by visiting their website or contacting executive director Rhona Mahl at Rhona@transitionalyouth.org.