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San Jose’s Good Karma Bikes Gives Back, Boosts Confidence

We know that bicycles are good for the environment and our health, but a local bike shop proves that two wheels are also good for building community and self esteem.

Good Karma Bikes started 13 years ago after Jim Gardner started fixing bicycles for people experiencing homelessness in St. James Park in downtown San Jose. His work started out as a solution to a problem, but Gardner quickly saw that fixing or supplying a bicycle meant much more than a means of transportation. It gave people confidence.

After that realization, he jumped right in doing more mobile clinics. “No market research, no study, no plan–just an effort to help with bicycle transportation for those who genuinely felt they had nothing,” he says of starting the organization in 2008.

That inkling that he could make a difference for people who truly needed it has grown over the years. This fall, the shop will move into a new 11,000 square-foot space, which will accommodate all of the new programs the shop offers, a retail space and mechanical shop.

“Moving to a larger space will increase our ability to help more people. Our reach will be maybe double or triple what it is today,” estimates Jenny Circle, Good Karma’s Development Director.

That’s a good thing, because the need is growing. In the beginning, it was mostly people without housing that benefited from being able to get a free bicycle from Good Karma, but today, as living costs soar, more and more low-wage workers and people who can’t afford the upkeep of a car are seeking out Good Karma.

“We’re seeing families that can’t necessarily afford to buy their kids new bikes,” Circle said.

In addition to providing a mode of transportation to people who can’t otherwise afford one, Good Karma hosts a bevy of free programs that focus on inclusivity and growing the cycling community, including a Women’s Night, led by women, a LGBTQ+ Mechanic Skills Night, led by mechanics in the LGBTQ+ community, and a free repair clinic that gives everybody an equal chance for service. The organization also hopes to add a night for Spanish speakers in the near future.

“Jim always says if you fix something and somebody tells you ‘good job,’ that’s great. But knowing inside that you’ve fixed something yourself or for another person, that’s really self esteem and that’s what is happening here,” Circle said.

Learning about bicycle maintenance and mechanics from somebody who shares a life experience is important. You’re “in safe space to feel comfortable asking questions and learning the basics of bike repair,” Circle said.

Since its inception, Good Karma has provided over $2.6 million in community aid to people in need. No one has ever been turned away for financial reasons, the organization says. In terms of reach, Good Karma estimates it gives away 1.5 bicycles each day thanks to donations from the community.

Volunteers and staff also help people obtain bike locks – a stolen bicycle can be life changing for some people – and repair services.

“The backbone of our organization is the donations and volunteers,” Circle said. “Financial (donations), bikes, parts. That’s how we operate and it’s because of the generosity of our community.”

Good Karma doesn’t ask its clients to pay back the services the organization offers, but rather pay it forward.

Circle recalls Jim telling a client they didn’t owe him any money. “What you owe today is to do something kind for somebody else,” he said.

That notion has been baked into Good Karma’s mission statement: “We empower people and build community through bikes.”

“The common denominator in these efforts is the notion of continuously and relentlessly paying it forward so that one day, the cycle truly becomes full circle,” said the organization’s board chair Taurean Dyer.

You don’t have to look very far to see the impact Good Karma has, but even research shows how life-changing a bicycle can be for a person experiencing homelessness. They can access services, housing, social networks and even jobs.

University of California Davis researcher Cory Parker wrote in a 2019 study of two California cities and how bicycles impact life for the homeless community that transportation exclusion reinforces existing barriers and inhibits access to basic necessities.

“Due to a lack of resources and appropriate appearance, homeless people find efficient movement through the city very difficult,” he wrote. “With diminished access to transportation, homeless people cannot participate in the mobile economy of our cities.”

Jim also found that when he helped somebody fix their bicycle, they’d take that knowledge and help another person in their circle. Suddenly, they had the know-how and confidence to pass on some support.

The success stories, dating all the way back to 2008, from Good Karma are plenty. For one man, a bike meant he could save money commuting to his job in San Francisco so that he could transition from a homeless shelter to affordable housing. For another, a bike meant being able to make parole meetings and a smoother transition back into society. Entire families and kids with working parents are also among recipients.

Circle tries to keep the organization’s website up to date with success stories, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg, she said. There are always more and the list grows every day.

“It’s this big kind of magical place,” she said of Good Karma and the people who support its mission.

Good Karma is currently located at 460 Lincoln Ave. #25 in San Jose. For more information on the organization or how to get involved, visit www.goodkarmabikes.org.