By Jack Rubinger
What are two things we know about Portland?
Everyone drinks coffee. Everyone has a bike.
Even though neither of those are entirely true, Rhona Mahl is combining these two pastimes along with an important cause: helping homeless and at-risk youth at Braking Cycles, 3354 SE Powell Blvd.; a one of a kind mom and pop style coffeeshop with a cause, that celebrated its grand opening in December.
Mahl has lived the life of a teen on the streets of Portland. She watched friends die and become addicted to substances. When she was 14, she gave birth to a baby girl and that event changed her forever and planted the seed for an idea: to provide teens with a resource that combines job training, counseling, friendship and life skills.
“There are two misconceptions about teens on the streets of Portland: that there aren’t jobs and there isn’t housing. In my experience, these kids suffer from fractured relationships with their families of origin,” she said.
“Many are foster care kids. Inevitably, they get trapped in downtown Portland because that’s where all the services they need are located. Meanwhile, they’re preyed upon by pimps, drug dealers and sex trafficking. What we’re offering is a safe alternative away from downtown and a way to break the vicious cycle.”
Braking Cycles Coffee and the bike shop, Bikes for Humanity, have created a non-profit outreach center that offers the following:
• Bikes for Humanity Bike shop. By collecting donated bikes to resell and recycle, youth learn maintenance, repair, sales and business.
• Coffeeshop. Youth learn barista, customer service and hospitality skills.
• Braking Cycles creations. Using recycled bike parts to create jewelry, art, and housewares.
• Traction mentor program. Youth are matched with a mentor for one year.
The vibe is lively, colorful and eclectic. Guitarist/singer Troy Keyn sang a few Jobim tunes and holiday classics in a cool folksy style. On the walls are photos of the many volunteers and kids who helped transform the space. Look down and there are pennies, pennies and more pennies.
“We’ve all stepped over and around kids on the street like these pennies which many consider worthless. We’re laying down a new foundation for our youth here with these pennies. Some 200 volunteers worked for more than 1000 hours laying down these 150,000 pennies,” said Mahl, the founder and president of Braking Cycles.
The shop comes under the umbrella of Transitional Youth, a faith-based nonprofit established to reach homeless and at-risk youth and offer opportunities to envision and navigate a course toward a hopeful future.
Currently, there are three apprentices working at the shop all under the age of 25 who are trained on all things coffee and cycling related. They’re paid above minimum wage and serve for six months. After that, they are offered help with additional education, housing at one of four homes supervised by a house parent and with access to career counseling.
Twenty-five-year-old Tiffany Wicks was homeless, but now she’s pushing forward to make a better life for her and baby daughter Claira. “We’re one big family here,” she said. Wicks intends to continue to work as a barista.
“There’s a window of opportunity in which we can really bring transformation. That’s our goal here,” said Mahl. “We see this place as a hub, a center for building bridges.
Also leading the program at Braking Cycles is real estate executive Bert Waugh, Jr., who founded Transitional Youth. “Real estate is my passion. At-risk youth is my purpose,” he said.
The third spoke of the wheel that runs Braking Cycles is Jerel Skeith, the bike guy leveraging Portland’s bike scene to merge social work, coffee and bikes.
“Some kids are more comfortable serving the public, others would rather focus on bikes,” Skeith said. “We get that everyone is different. We’ll train them on whatever they want to learn.”
Other partners are worth noting: the Portland police officers who volunteered their time building the beautiful handcrafted wood tables; Intent Coffee Roasting who invests profits toward building community development; and Bingo’s, the funky bookstore next door. Braking Cycles rents their space from Bingo.
So what’s next for the shop? Some kids get their GEDs, some go to college, some hopefully get plugged into sustainable jobs. Whatever the outcome, lives are transformed and the wheels keep moving further down the road.
For more information, visit BrakingCycles.org or call 971.229.1674.