Harry Baumert, Volunteer

 

HarryBaumertVolunteering, literacy, and bicycles have all united for Harry Baumert after moving to Minneapolis.

Baumert, who was a sports photographer for the Des Moines Register newspaper for 30 years, always dreamed of living in the Twin Cities. “I always thought it was the coolest place, probably because of the Star Tribune,” he said. “Out of college I interviewed and got the job at the Register, but kept it in the back of my mind that Minneapolis would be a great place to live.”

And in May 2010, after retiring from the newspaper in 2009, he and his wife finally made the move to the city when an opportunity arose to become live-in caretakers at a condominium. “It’s a semi-retirement situation,” he said. “It’s like a half-time job living and working there. It gives me time to spend with the grandkids and time to volunteer.”

As well as time to bike. Prior to living in Minneapolis, Baumert had no idea what the bike scene was like and was amazed by the Midtown Greenway. “A superhighway for pedestrians and bicycles,” he marveled. “The whole biking infrastructure in the Twin Cities is amazing.”

Working at the newspaper in Iowa, Baumert didn’t have the time to bike as much as he wanted, and Iowa didn’t have the means for it. “When I lived in Marion, Iowa, I biked a little but the infrastructure was not bike-friendly,” he explained. “There were a few bike lanes but it was difficult to seriously get from here to there.”

Now, bicycling is his main form of transportation, from short rides to the grocery store, to long rides to see his grandkids in Farmington. But this all started with his first day at Cycles for Change. He heard about the organization at a literacy workshop from a fellow participant who was also an avid bicyclist. “He asked if I knew about Sibley Bike Depot and told me about repairing bikes, using their repair stands and tools, and buying their used parts,” he said. “So I found this place, and my god, I was amazed. I took a bicycle overhaul class and started volunteering three years ago.”

Baumert is one of C4C’s most dedicated volunteers, coming in every Monday to help in the shop, clean parts, and repair bikes. “If I can’t make it Monday, I’ll try to come in another day,” he said. “There’s always something to learn. The bicycles donated are often diamonds in the rough, under the rust, and I like to work on those bikes for retail.”

“Working on old bicycles has taught me patience and that anything can happen when you start turning a wrench on an old bicycle,” Baumert said. He’s had old parts break, has to remember how parts fit together as he takes them off, and has learned that some bikes are just fragile. “The ones we rehab here are solid bikes, but in the process of overhauling them, you have to take a lot of care,” he added.

During his three years volunteering at C4C, Baumert has gotten a pretty good feel for the place. He’s made connections with other volunteers, participated in two Bike-a-Thons, and most recently the Slow Roll ride in St. Paul. “When you volunteer at an organization like this you can find your place, where you feel comfortable,” he explained. “Not everybody can sit in meetings and think great thoughts and come up with plans and programs. Some people do that well; some people like to [be hands-on], be a part of the machine, be any one of those other parts that makes the organization work. I like to sort parts, clean the shop, all those things behind the scenes that are so important to making the organization run.”

Even behind the scenes, he’s witnessed firsthand the important impact C4C’s programming has on the community. “It’s really interesting how an organization is able to think big,” he said. “I think pretty small. I work on a bicycle at a time. But the whole idea of this organization putting together adult learn-to-ride classes, the earn-a-bike program, even the logistics and organization it takes to accept so many donated bikes—it’s this whole network in the Twin Cities that is really devoted to helping people become bicyclists and repair their bikes and just feel comfortable with two-wheeled transportation.”

Besides feeling comfortable on a bike, one also needs to feel safe. “Safety is really important,” Baumert said. “I wear a yellow reflective safety vest, stop at all stop signs regardless of if there’s cars or not, and have additional headlight and taillight. I also have to remind myself that even if I obey the laws, everybody makes mistakes, and drivers will not see you if they are distracted. You have to watch out at intersections. You have to be so careful.”

And not just careful in terms of being attentive, but also about gear, especially when riding in the winter, as Baumert does. “The first winter I bicycled, I had no idea what I was doing as far as clothing,” he said. “The first time I rode, I wore insulated coveralls. They did not breathe. I also wore five layers of cotton until I learned about the right fabrics to wear and the importance of the right kind of gloves and footwear. Every time the cold weather rolls around I have to re-educate myself, try to guess the temp and wind, try to guess the layers needed to ride comfortably.” And each year he figures it out and is able to enjoy himself. “It’s such a joy to ride in cold weather when you’re comfortable,” he added.

Besides C4C, Baumert has also volunteered as an English tutor at the Franklin Learning Center. The combination of his two volunteering experiences has helped him see how both literacy and bicycling are needed to close the achievement gap. “I keep hearing about the achievement gap in schools, and how education and transportation are very closely linked,” he said. “Many people of color don’t have a lot of money, and if they can have a form of transportation other than a car, then that’s one part of closing the achievement gap. You can get to school, you can get to tutoring, you are able to get places. Literacy and education are so important and the basis of everything in later life. If you can read well and write well, you can go places.” And with a bike, you can literally go there.

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