M e r c u r y N e w s c o m   |   San Jose Mercury News
Holiday Wish Book
Hope on two wheels 
Good Karma Bikes repairs battered bikes and, sometimes, lives

Good Karma Bikes is an organization that provides safe, reliable bicycle transportation for homeless and low-income families.

Founder Jim Gardner, left, sets up his workshop in the parking lot of InnVision in San Jose.

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(Josie Lepe / Mercury News)

By Mike Swift / Mercury News

John Ferrin, 53, doesn't have a car. Ferrin doesn't have a home, either. He sleeps in a shelter run by InnVision near the HP Pavilion. He relies on a metal cane to walk.

But Ferrin says he's clean and sober — has been for years. He has his independence, and he has his pride. And a big part of that is his bike, which he specially modified with a piece of PVC pipe he strapped to the frame. The pipe holds his collapsible silver cane when he uses his bike to visit his sister, or get to the grocery store, meetings or almost anywhere else he needs to go.

Ferrin waited in front of the InnVision shelter on North Montgomery Street one recent Saturday morning while Jim Gardner worked on his bike. Ferrin's freewheel had let go, leaving his pedals spinning without any thrust. He didn't have money for repairs, but Gardner's Good Karma Bikes, which sets up most Saturday mornings under a pair of red tents outside this shelter near downtown San Jose, doesn't charge.

"I'm grateful," Ferrin said, while Gardner, a 46-year-old fluid dynamics engineer, grappled with his freewheel. "These guys, they're just top of the line."

Good Karma Bikes Jim Gardner, left, works on a wheel with volunteer Juan Soriano, 13.

(Josie Lepe / Mercury News)
Gardner, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and a mechanic's certificate from United Bicycle Institute of Ashland, Ore., was dressed in a dark blue mechanic's apron, tools sprouting from the pockets. He worked next to two other volunteers, Randall Ramirez, a San Jose real estate agent; and Joseph Matej, a resident of the InnVision shelter. Matej noted that, for him, one of the best things about fixing bikes is that "I'm not sitting in the park using drugs."

It was around noontime. Working industriously, the three had already repaired more than a dozen bikes — not a busy day by Gardner's standards.

"I sometimes have clients come and they try to pay me," Gardner said. "What I tell them is, 'Pass it on. Pass on the kindness.'"

Last year, on his way to donate some old clothes to an agency in San Jose, Gardner saw a homeless person teetering on a rickety bicycle. The guy just needs a better bike, he thought. An idea took root.

"I knew I could help. I've always been good with my hands. I'd been searching for some way to sort of give back," Gardner said.

The idea grew into Good Karma Bikes, a nonprofit organization Gardner launched last November. Good Karma accepts donations of used bikes and parts, and passes them on to homeless people who need reliable two-wheeled transportation. The group raffles off donated bikes and repairs others at two weekly clinics in San Jose.

"That's the biggest problem usually, that their bikes are not in good shape and they break down all the time," said Christina Egan, executive director of Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen. The soup kitchen, along with InnVision, partners with Good Karma for its clinics.

Particularly in the South Bay, with its good climate, spread-out neighborhoods and flat terrain, bicycles are critical mode of transportation for homeless people, advocates say, who use them for basic errands like getting to the store or visiting relatives.

Good Karma has grown rapidly as word of its free services has spread. Between February and late November, volunteers serviced 958 bikes and gave away 129.

Now Good Karma is branching out to new clientele — U.N. refugees from various countries who are being resettled by the nonprofit group Catholic Charities. Good Karma particularly needs bike donations for the refugees, and will help recipients do repairs. "They are going to get a bike, fix it up, and it's theirs," Gardner said.

Two San Jose bike shops, Willow Glen Bicycles and Highland Family Bicycles, already donate parts, but the group needs more. In addition to bike donations, Good Karma hopes Wish Book readers will help by donating money to buy a spoke machine to repair bicycle wheels (about $3,000), repair tools ($700), and about $2,000 worth of other parts. Good Karma also needs locks and helmets. Each donation of $50 will help the organization deliver safe, reliable bikes to more people in need.

Gardner was laid off from his own job at a Silicon Valley startup as he organized Good Karma last year, so he works on the bikes while making a living through his consulting business.

Gardner is a "great guy," Egan said. "The population we work with aren't always friendly, and he handles the controversies really well. It's a thankless job."

Sometimes, though, Gardner touches a life.

Crystal Lafaver, 28, was homeless when she got a bike from Gardner. Now with a job and a home, Lafaver volunteers at Good Karma clinics. "I like seeing the smiles on people's faces," she said. "I like working with Jim. He's cool. He cares about people."

In the fixing of bikes, Gardner says, Good Karma also aspires to the fixing of people. His favorite moments are when people who are homeless, like Matej, volunteer as mechanics. Good Karma's motto is "Transportation for Transformation."

"When you're able to fix something that was broken and not working, you don't need anyone to tell you you've done a good job," Gardner said. "For their self-esteem, it's tremendous. That's really my reward."

Each $50 donation to Good Karma Bikes will help the organization deliver safe, reliable bikes to more people in need.

Comments about Wish Book stories? E-mail wishbook@mercurynews.com or call coordinator Leigh Poitinger at 408-920-5972.

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