Know Your Madisonian: Changing kids’ lives with bikes
As the new executive director of Madison’s Free Bikes 4 Kidz, Kristie Goforth is trying to improve children’s lives with bicycles.
The nonprofit organization, started in 2017, has given out nearly 4,700 bikes so far.
Free Bikes 4 Kidz accepts donations throughout the year, though most of its bikes are collected during special collection drives, such as one coming up on Nov. 7 where people can drop off bikes at donation stations throughout the area.
The bikes are tuned up by a team of paid and volunteer mechanics and then distributed several times a year to families identified by partner organizations, including local social service agencies and schools.
“It’s almost like Christmas morning,” Goforth said. “You get to be like Santa over and over and over, getting all these kids these bikes.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic hampered efforts in 2020, Goforth is hoping to increase the reach to more than 2,000 bikes next year to meet a growing demand.
Goforth, 49, lives in Monona with her two children, ages 7 and 11.
A graduate of UW-Madison, Goforth previously ran the Monona East Side Business Alliance. She serves on the Dane County parks board and was elected in April to the Monona City Council.
Was cycling always a part of your life?
I grew up on an island in Lake Huron. Drummond Island, it’s called. It’s right on the Canadian border. I’m a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I was one of the few native families left on the islands.
We grew up incredibly poor. I was never above the poverty level. Because my mom, she dropped out of high school at 16 to have my sister. She had me a year later. My dad is Ojibwe. He just had a life filled with trauma, and hard decisions were made as a result. He left us when I was 1, and I did not see him much. It was really challenging. My mom always worked three jobs. So I understand our recipients’ lives and the complexities and the challenges and just how much joy having a bicycle can bring to a kid whose life is filled with stress.
What did having a bike mean to you?
It was independence. It was joy. It was freedom. It was, you know, all of my worries were left behind. I never had a new bicycle, but I didn’t care. It didn’t mean anything. As long as it worked, I was happy. It helped me also in my social circles. You know, other kids had bicycles. If you don’t have a bicycle, you’re left out of that group.
I didn’t have a bike in high school. But then when I came here to UW, just being immersed here in this culture, this bike culture, I’m like, how can you not want a bicycle, right? And so I ended up getting one — I bought my first road bike. I just became a total addict. And so I rode all the time. I didn’t have a car — rode everywhere. Rode all year round.
Is it just a matter of giving out bikes?
The number of barriers to bicycling is really pretty amazing. If your parents don’t have bikes and you want to go on a family bike ride, that’s a challenge … Maybe your parents aren’t physically fit enough to help teach you. We teach a lot of kids in our parking lot after giveaways how to ride, and it’s pretty awesome and exciting to watch.
A lot of our folks have really never owned bicycles, and we’ve heard of people who get a flat tire and they might think their bicycle is entirely ruined or broken and they don’t realize that’s an easy repair. If you do need to take it to a bike shop, that can be expensive, and you need a way to haul the bikes.
What’s your vision for the organization?
I truly believe that we can easily get to a point where we’re giving away 2,000 to 2,500 bikes a year.
Collecting the bikes is not as much of a challenge as fundraising. This has been a very difficult year to fundraise, but we need those two things. We need financial donations, and we need bike donations to make this program happen. We have zero model for earning money other than auctioning off (some) bikes … We entirely rely on donations.
How has the pandemic changed your operations?
In 2020, we gave away 1,045. COVID cut down in our repair season because we had to close in March. We probably would have met our goal of 1,500. But we still felt really good that we were able to give away over a thousand.
It’s just we’ve we’re getting more requests this year than ever. We do anticipate that happening in 2021 as well.
It’s just made for a much better experience for our recipients, because we’re not doing one huge day where everybody gets a bicycle. We do them every Saturday in May and June. We scheduled people in waves at the top of each hour. And so it’s just much more organized. It’s a calmer event, and it’s one that focuses more on their experience versus our need to get these bikes out the door.
You came to Madison for college and never left. What do you love about it?
Right now, because I’m immersed in seeing the challenges that our recipients face on a daily basis, I see the challenges in Madison I maybe didn’t see 10 years ago, 20 years ago. But I see it now, and that’s really hard.
If you’d asked me that question, 10 or 15 years ago, I would have said the progressive atmosphere, and the amazing restaurants and bars, and the arts culture and all of this. But now, I think, you’ve heard it said before, the COVID pandemic has just really held a mirror up to our society that amplifies our flaws. And I’m seeing that more than ever.
There are a lot of people in this community who stepped up to take it on. And we just need more. And we really need people to listen and commit to action, not words. Right now I just hear a lot of words.
What have you learned since joining the Monona City Council?
I’ve learned how deeply rooted our systemic challenges are, and how hard it is to make positive change. Especially when you live in a community that is 98% white. There are reasons communities are like that. And it goes back to historic times and people just wanting to keep things a certain way. It’s a real challenge to make change.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I do really believe it’s changing kids’ lives. It’s helping them establish early healthy habits. It’s giving them independence and joy and some stress free moments, just to feel the wind in your hair. Learning to go no hands … And then hopefully, it leads to them having a life filled with, basically, biking.
I can’t even call this a job. It’s really more of a gift that I get to be in this position and give these bikes away and change people’s lives. It’s really awesome.