“It’s Hard to Fail When You’re Giving Bikes to Kids”
When I was a child growing up in the 1980s, my bike was an important part of my life. My favorite bike was a Predator Cromo, a dirt bike that I received for Christmas one year. This bike represented fun – we were always racing bikes, riding “wheelies” and creating jumps. This bike represented freedom – I rode it everywhere. If I wanted to see a friend, I didn’t ask my Dad to take me, I just jumped on my bike and rode to his house. It was no big deal to ride my bike 10 miles to a friend’s house. One of those friends was a kid named Dee Starnes. We met while playing middle school football for the “Eagles.” We quickly struck up a friendship over our love of bikes. When I was in 8th grade, I frequently rode my bike to his house in Grand Ledge. We would hang out all day, riding bikes and finding fun ways to waste the day.
Dee’s Childhood: In many respects, Dee had a rough childhood. People from my generation would say that he came from the “wrong side of the tracks.” His father spent time in prison and his parents were divorced. When I met Dee, he lived in a tiny house with his mother in a poor section of town. There were strange people coming and going from his house and there were a few shady things going on. It was a bit scary at times, but Dee always protected me from any of the bad stuff. Even when Dee was going down the wrong path, he cared enough about me to keep me on the straight and narrow.
In spite of his childhood troubles, Dee always had a smile on his face. He was a free spirit that made you laugh. He was the type of kid who seemed to be friends with everyone at school. He had a generous heart and he cared about other people. However, as high school continued, we went on separate paths and created different friend groups. We just kind of lost track of each other. I later learned that Dee was expelled from high school in 10th grade after he was involved in a vicious fight. Dee was subsequently kicked out of 4 other high schools for various reasons and never graduated.
Reconnecting: I always wondered what happened to that free-spirited Dee Starnes. Five years quickly became 10 and before you knew it, 10 years became 30. Then, while scrolling through Facebook one day, I discovered a friend request from a Donovan Starnes. I quickly put 2 and 2 together and realized that Dee’s real name was Donovan. Since high school, Donovan has lived in 8 states, and has made his home in a small city called Hayward, just south of Oakland, California. It’s fair to say that Donovan has seen his share of hard livin’. Drugs played a pivotal role in his life. As a young person, he frequently used and abused hardcore drugs like acid, crank, and meth. At the age of 42, he voluntarily checked himself into a drug recovery center to get clean and sober. Donovan made this decision so that he could become the best dad that he could for his 4 amazing daughters. In his life, he has been a top-notch mechanic, house painter, construction worker and has driven stretch limos for years. More than anything, Donovan sees himself as an artist. He even wrote a book called, “Creating Positive Waves,” which contains his many poems and paintings.
What caught my eye on Facebook were these cool videos of Donovan giving away bicycles. Every couple of days, he would post a video of some random child receiving a free bike from his bike shop. These little kids couldn’t stop smiling, and you could hear the pride in Donovan’s voice as he filmed some kid riding his bike for the first time. “It feels good,” exclaimed Donovan. “It makes the kids so happy. These kids are pumped up like a basketball.” Turns out that Donovan has given away 557 bikes to local kids in the Bay Area and another 385 bikes to kids in Africa. Heck, since I began writing this story, he has given away 3 more bikes.
Here’s how it works: Donovan advertises through social media and by word of mouth. People in the community donate their used bikes to his bike shop. Donovan then fixes up these bikes and gives them away to any kid who wants a bike. No money ever changes hands. Donovan does this out of the kindness of his heart. When a child outgrows their bike, he/she can just trade it in for a bigger bike. If a bike needs a repair, he fixes it for free. He even takes the time to teach these young ones how to ride a bike. Donovan has been repeating this process for years. In fact, he has received so many bikes from the community that he stopped advertising. More bikes were coming in than he could handle. As you might imagine, it takes a fair amount of cash to get these bikes “road-ready” so that a 5 or 10-year-old can safely ride it.
The Best Day: Many underprivileged kids don’t know that his shop exists and probably couldn’t get there even if they did. So, Donovan sometimes brings the bikes to them. He describes his best day as the day he went to the “hood.” That day he and his volunteer staff repaired flat tires and got lots of bikes back on the road. They also gave away 36 bikes that day and taught almost that many kids how to ride a bike. “Man, that was an awesome day,” Donovan reflected. “It’s hard to fail when you’re giving bikes to kids.”
Covid: As stated previously, Donovan currently makes his money as a construction worker and as a limo driver. His bike shop isn’t even officially open yet. He had planned on opening the shop much earlier, but Covid hit Donovan hard. Most of his income disappeared when the governor would not allow him to work in these public jobs. He jokes that he doesn’t even know how he continued to pay the $1,300 monthly rent payments during this difficult period. Time after time, he received anonymous donations that covered his monthly expenses. On top of that, he lost 24 friends in the Covid era, which made it a very difficult and depressing time for Donovan.
Grand Opening: Donovan has applied for non-profit status so people in the community will be able to donate their bikes, money and time to his bike shop (and get a tax write-off). The name of his shop will be, “Rolling Recyclery.” He is finishing the drywall and putting the final touches on the shop right now. He wants the grand opening to launch in December, before Christmas rolls around. He currently has over 400 bikes at the shop that are ready to be donated to children. He will call his grand opening, “the Big Bike Giveaway.”
A Well-Kept Secret: I have been writing weekly blog posts since 2012. I typically find inspirational stories like this when they are covered by national or local news outlets. I then rewrite the story through the lens of character and leadership, and hope that it creates a positive impact on you, the reader. However, this is the first time that I actually know the inspirational person in the story. In this case, I conducted the interview and “broke” the story. There are zero news stories on Donovan and his bike shop. He has shunned the publicity because he was not prepared to have thousands of used bikes dropped off at his place of business.
Why: The most important question I asked Donovan was “why”. What motivates him to basically pay $2,000 a month just to give away free bikes? His response reveals the journey that he has been on for 50+ years: “It’s one of the only things that feels right in my life.” As a child, Donovan’s parents could not afford to buy him a bike, so he started delivering the local paper (the Lansing State Journal) in 8th grade to save enough money to buy his own bike. Donovan doesn’t want money to stand in the way of a child getting her/his own first bike. Donovan knows what a bike can do for someone’s spirit and he wants to pass along the amazing feeling of riding a bike. It gives him joy to bring joy to others.
Grand Opening: By officially opening the shop next month, Donovan hopes to sell some of the classic bikes that he has fixed up over the years to adults. There is a market for these vintage bikes. If he is successful, he will be able to quit his construction and chauffeur jobs. He will then be able to work full-time at the shop and even hire a few employees to staff the shop. Of course, he will continue to give away free bikes to kids. Donovan confidently stated, “If a little dude wants a bike, I want to make it happen.”
My Hopes: I hope that Donovan is wildly successful. I hope the Rolling Recylery Bike Shop has its grand opening next month and I hope he receives the non-profit status from the state of California. I hope that hundreds of little dudes in the Bay Area receive a bike for Christmas this year, and the next and the next. I hope that businesses and individuals recognize the kindness in Donovan’s heart and donate money to his non-profit. I hope that paying customers buy vintage bikes from the shop, enabling Donovan to work at his dream job for the rest of his days. I hope this gives Donovan peace in his heart and more time to spend with his daughters. Finally, I hope that this little blog spurs local and national news outlets to cover the amazing journey of Donovan Starnes and his bike shop, Rolling Recyclery. May God bless Donovan and his efforts to make this world a better place.
Your Turn: What inspires you about the story of Donovan & his mission to open his bike shop, Rolling Recovery?