Friday, May 20, 2022

Noe Cuadra

Noe Cuadra came to Arlington from El Salvador with his family when he was seven years old. He is a graduate of George Mason University with a degree in business management and a minor in environmental enterprise. He currently is a shop manager at Phoenix Bikes, an Arlington nonprofit  organization along Columbia Pike that combines youth educational programs with a professional bike shop  and retail store. 

"I was born in El Salvador. I came when I was seven and lived in Arlington for about seventeen years.  

I joined Phoenix Bikes when I was a freshman at Wakefield High School. I was looking for a job because I wanted money. A friend of mine told me, "there's this bike shop in Arlington that will show you how to fix bikes, and you get a free bike at the end of the program." And I was like, "Oh really? Let me go see and figure out what the program was about." So I walked there with my friend and stopped by there just to get an idea of what the program was about. I never really went back until after buying my own bike. I ended up getting a flat on the way home one day and stopped by Phoenix. I didn't have money with me so I asked, "Hey, can you guys help me out, or show me how to do this?" The program coordinator, Stephen Green, sat down, and showed me how to take off a wheel, and how to patch an inner tube. I told him that I didn't have any money and he said, "Don't worry about it. We'll just show you how to do it and if you want to come back, you can learn how to do it yourself, and then you'll have the opportunity to build your own bike." I thought, "Oh, this is fun. I can get a free bike and a faster bike than what I had before." After that, during the summer of my freshman year in 2012, I joined the earn a bike program. 

Back then Phoenix was on South Four Mile Drive. I volunteered my freshman year, sophomore, junior, and  senior year. In my sophomore year, I got busy with sports, wrestling, and lacrosse, so I barely went to  Phoenix. In my junior year, they offered me a job, and I started working there. During the summer of my sophomore year, I volunteered for more than 500 hours. It was fun because the environment there is welcoming, and the staff cared about you. You can bring your friends, it was a cool hangout place and you get the opportunity to learn new things. Everyone's like, "Hey, how's it going? How are you doing?" If you had an idea of how to make the environment better, let's say the shop was really crowded and you thought moving the stands in a certain direction way was going to help, the staff would be, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's try it." That was really helpful because it gave all the youth a voice, the staff was there to listen and help implement their opinions and ideas. I met a lot of friends there, too. Working at Phoenix introduced me to a big community, a cycling community, and a professional community. I met friends my age, I've met board members and community leaders. I was able to speak to leaders at a young age through the opportunities that Phoenix offered. I met people who traveled around the world on a bike, and people who had experience biking across the states. I learned a lot. 

I still stay in touch with the people I’ve met through Phoenix. A lot of the ones that I am in touch with are the staff and youth that I used to hang out with. Some of them live nearby, so we still bike together or they come by the shop and say hi. A lot of the youth who volunteer or work at Phoenix live in South Arlington. They mostly go to Wakefield, Washington-Liberty, Gunston, Kenmore, and TJ. Those are the kids that are able to come to the shop often. We do get some kids that come from other counties in Virginia, and places like DC, or Maryland. Some manage to drive all the way up here which shows that they really like coming here. 

Our main goal at Phoenix is to provide affordable transportation to the community and provide an  opportunity for kids to learn bike mechanics and receive a free bike. A lot of students can't afford a bike, because bikes are expensive and a lot of the families that live in the area are low-income. Having this program where kids get to learn how to work on a bike and keep it at the end of the program has been helpful for students. We have a diverse group of students. Hispanics, African Americans, Asians.


When it comes to promoting a healthy lifestyle we don't really enforce it but we do know exercise is healthy for the person. "Hey, if you go on a ten-mile ride or if you go exercise for an hour, it would make you feel better." Mostly we take kids on a bike ride to have fun. The health aspect is implemented in there, but we barely talk about it. There are kids that come in that like to eat junk food. They're kids and I think it's fine once in a while, but we also try to say, "Hey, you shouldn't be drinking this, it's not good for you." Or "Hey, if you want to become faster on a bike, you should be drinking more water or eating healthy."

The kids look up to me but being in charge of them you sometimes can't see it yourself. A lot of the youth look up to us because in this environment it's not, “you come in and work for us.” It's more like, "Hey, you're going to get a free bike and you're going to earn it but at the same time, we want you to grow as a person. You're a youth, you're a minority. We want to give you all the tools to succeed in life." Things like, "Do you want to learn how to talk to people? Public speaking. Do you want to get your first job at a bike shop? We'll show you customer service skills, such as answering the phone, or learning business operations practices." It's not the main program, but we offer kids the opportunity to grow as a person. I graduated from Wakefield in 2016. I then went to NOVA Community College for business administration, then transferred to George Mason University in 2018, and graduated in 2020 with a business management degree. 

I am managing the place now. My passion for leadership began when Phoenix Bikes went to the National Youth Bike Summit. It's an event where nonprofits come together and talk about how they're growing, how they need help and any new ideas they have. All the workshops are run by youth. I attended one of them, it was about leadership. I was a junior in high school at the time. I was thinking that if I'm going to be a leader and I'm going off to college, what can I learn now? What can I do now to make my resume or my application better? So I went to this leadership workshop that was run by youth and that just opened up my eyes. I'm like, "Wow." I thought it was going to be a workshop taught by adults but it was taught by youth. That’s where I said, " if they can do it, I can do it too." 

The other thing that I enjoyed about the summit was that it was my first airplane ride. We went to Seattle, Washington and Phoenix Bikes took five to ten students. All we had to do was fundraise and then Phoenix would cover everything else. From then on I realized that this organization cares about the kids, the youth. I felt like my voice was being heard. Ever since that day, I started noticing it's not just me, but all the staff put the same amount of energy into each kid. If that kid wants to grow, we'll give you the tools and we'll guide you. We quite literally give them the tools, both psychological and physical. 

The store is open from Tuesday to Saturday. From Tuesday to Friday we're open 10:30 AM to 6:00 PM. Most of the kids come around 2:30 because that's when middle school finishes, and then high school starts showing up around three to four. The youth have to attend orientation first to give them an idea of what they’re going to be learning. This is not a class-based style, it's more, "Here's your checklist. We're going to show you how to do it, and now you're going to work on it by yourself." During orientation, we'll talk about the rules and checklist. After attending orientation it becomes a drop-in program. Whenever the kid is available and we're open, they can come in. We always have instructors here so it doesn't matter if you're ahead on the checklist or behind on the checklist, it's all self-paced and we have teachers helping you out. 

Covid affected our operation. In early 2020 everything went down. We closed the doors to customers and  youth. We were doing sales and service and we were offering give-a-bikes to people in need. Give-a-bikes are basically bikes that we fix up and give to those in the community who need them such as someone who is homeless and just got a job and needs transportation. Some organizations that we work with will email us and say, "I have a client here who needs a bike." And then we'll help those folks. We were working with youth during Covid 19, but it was online. But teaching bike mechanics over Zoom is not fun. Near the end of 2020, in the winter, we started offering outdoor bike classes to a small group of maybe five kids. Last year somewhere in the summer we started offering more and larger classes outside. Now we're fully back to where we were before. The shop is open for customers and youth. Students can come in on a drop-in basis, and we're also having after-school classes at middle schools and high schools. During the school year, it's hard for the youth to come to us, so we go to them. We teach three to four after-school bike classes every semester, a curriculum for an eight-week program. They first learn the parts of a bike and then the tools. They learn the same things that they would learn in the shop. Interestingly, we actually had more girls that joined the program than boys that year. We do try to have an all-girls bike club and we try to encourage more girls to join the club. 

I am the first person in my family to go to college. As a kid, my family encouraged me to go to college, be the first in the family to be educated and put the family first. Some could say it was a burden, but I never really thought about it like that. I thought about it as "This is a cool opportunity. They're going to help me. It's going to be a struggle because I'm doing everything by myself." Due to the environment that I was exposed to at the shop, I learned that you can always ask for help and people will be there to help you out. I had a couple of friends who have the same backgrounds as me but never had the community to help them out, they basically had to learn everything by themselves. 

There's a group I joined in school called Boys Cohort. It’s like United Minority Girls, but the boy’s version. When I was in it, Mr. Beitler and Ms.Maitland ran it. Joining that program opened my eyes to realize the opportunities I have. There was this one time when we talked about statistics within the minority class. They presented numbers about being in a minority, and one of them was, that if you're a minority, you're more likely to go to jail. I don't remember the exact number but the way they put it was that if there were ten minority boys in the room, potentially “about 70% of us will go to jail based on stats.” That’s where I was like, "Just because I'm a minority you think I'm going to go to jail?" Everyone felt the same way. Like, "Hey, we're here to pursue higher education. We're here to make a difference and numbers can't decide who I'm going to be or what I'm going to be." That environment was really helpful because it basically guided me to get a college degree and gave me the tools to figure out how to get there. We would meet once a week, we dressed up professionally, and we sat down with a group of minorities who also valued higher education. We talked about what was going on with school, and we were also looking for any volunteer opportunities. It was a way to put us out there, to make us more visible when applying for college. 

As a kid, I knew every decision I made had to be the right one because I had a lot of people behind me who were trusting me and it was a lot of pressure. I never really thought about it until now that I have completed everything they asked me to do. My family always said, "We want you to finish high school." I'm like, "Okay." I finished high school. Then it was "I want you to get a college degree." I'm like, "Okay." I finished it. "Now I want you to get a job." Okay, I did that. So I'm at this point where I did everything they asked and now it's my turn to decide what I want to do next. I have a university degree in business now. I am working at a nonprofit organization and now I'm trying to figure out what I want to do next. 

Being on the Pike for a while has been easy to spot changes. The biggest thing I noticed is the building improvements, plus it's easier to walk on the sidewalks now. The sidewalks are much wider now. For example, on the bridge heading towards Four Mile Run Drive, the old sidewalks were very narrow. You had to get off and walk if you were biking. If there were two or three people, you had to be careful because you were basically touching shoulders. In the section where the new Harris Teeter store is now, there was a store called Food Star. That whole area was torn down. But with these changes come new opportunities, though some changes affect the culture in the area. 

I did notice the diversity is greater here when we moved from Barcroft park over to Columbia Pike. I get different customers and cultures with different styles. I meet new Ethiopian and Hispanic people from different areas.

I recently bought a house. I'm moving at the end of this week over to Maryland. I've been living in Arlington for years, but it's hard buying a house in this area now. A townhouse is expansive for one 

room. I know Arlington offers a lot of help and resources for people. One thing I wish they did better is making resources easier to find. For example, there's an Arlington Free Clinic and I didn't know about it until my mom talked about it. I know there are a lot of people out there who could benefit from insurance or having a clinic to go to and not have to pay a lot. Ever since I heard about that, I've been telling other people who can't afford insurance or are afraid or can’t afford to go to a hospital about that resource on the Pike. The other resource I can think of is AFAC [Arlington Food Assistance Center]. They offer food if you're in need. There are other resources in Arlington that should be promoted. We need to make it easier for people to find. It's harder for people who can't read or use the internet and that's the people they should be targeting. 

Lastly, I believe cycling gives you freedom. You can get on a bike, get on a trail, and just bike wherever you want. Taking the right tools is important because you can fix your bike in case something happens on the ride and if you get lost you can always go back to where you started."

Photography and interview by Lloyd Wolf.

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