He fixes bikes, gives them away, changes worlds. Don Cunkle is an old car-repair guy who likes bikes and people. For the past several years, the Traverse City resident has turned his mechanic skills and big heart toward the task of fixing and donating bikes to people struggling with homelessness, those without other means of transportation, and kids who’ve never known the freedom of having their own two-wheelers. It’s a simple, straightforward mission. But Don says you’d be surprised at the impact.

This article is featured in the April 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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So, Don, over the years you’ve helped out hundreds of people. Give us one story, though, that sticks with you.

There was a young lady, she was in her early 30s, and she was living in a tent in the woods behind the state hospital. She came into my shop looking for a bike because she had just gotten done with a job interview. They had told her that they thought she was going to work out pretty good, but then they asked her how she was going to get to work, and she had to tell them she didn’t have any transportation. They said they’d get back with her. So right after the interview, she went to the Father Fred Foundation, and they sent her to my shop. And I got her all set up with her bike. And an hour later, she came back and said, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that the place I applied at, when they found out I had a bike, they told me to start the next morning.” For her, it went from a ‘maybe,’ or a good chance that she might not get the job at all, to them giving her a chance because they saw she was serious.

Wow. So a bike isn’t just a bike. It can have a huge ripple effect.

Exactly. When I talk with my funders, I tell them if they really want to know what it’s like for people, then take two weeks and try to do all the things you normally do throughout your week—grocery shopping, going to doctors appointments, getting to your job, running errands—and do it only on the bus or walking. Then after two weeks, add a bike to that for the next couple weeks and do the same thing. And see how much that improves your life, even if you don’t have a car. For a lot of people, a bike is independence.

There’s a big push now in many cities to make streets and roads more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians. What’s something you’d like to see improved in the Traverse area?

This goes a little beyond bikes, but I think better sidewalk cleaning during the winter is really important. They’re doing really well in the city, but when you start getting outside the city limits, where many people live who have to walk or have fewer transportation options, people are having to walk right in the road. It’s not safe. In fact, there was an incident just recently, where a pedestrian was hit by a car on Lafranier Hill. He was walking in the road because the sidewalks weren’t plowed. So, again, it’s about the small things. Even something small like that can make a big difference.

Have a bicycle you want to donate? Contact Don Cunkle, TART’s Recycle-A-Bicycle program director, at 231.649.3443.

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Photo(s) by Dave Weidner