It was Scot Benton's father who inspired him to found Bicycle House Tallahassee, a Florida nonprofit that's part bike repair shop and training center, part "build-a-bike" program, part community development organization, part trail cleanup group and part kitchen/overnight space for travelers on the "Southern Tier" route from San Diego, Calif., to Saint Augustine, Fla.
"My father said, 'get out of the house...and open the door,'" says Benton, matter-of-factly. "I had a little money, and I just put that into the building, the bricks and mortar, and the tools. We had no idea what was going to happen."
If the origins of Bicycle House seem simple, Benton's story is anything but. After a bike-filled childhood in Tallahassee, he moved to New England for college. He traveled cross-country on a bike several times. He raced bikes regionally and nationally for 15 years; he was, as he puts it, a "very unsuccessful, hardworking racer." In 1998, while standing on the side of a street in Boston after work, he was struck by a car during an accident. He spent three months in a coma and another five years living with his parents.
When his father finally encouraged him to move out, it would spark a series of events that led to the opening of Bicycle House in 2009 (it received official nonprofit status in 2011). Since that time, the organization has, with the support of hundreds of volunteers, helped more than 3,000 people repair, rehabilitate and construct bikes.
And as the organization continues to grow, so too does Benton's vision for Bicycle House to become a full-fledged hostel. During its first couple years, Bicycle House served 20 or 30 tourists annually that stopped in. The "house" eventually started hosting travelers overnight, providing a hot shower, some rudimentary sleeping gear and, eventually, a kitchen. Last year, Benton counted approximately 350 stop-ins.
Dedicated to advocating "safe, practical transportation and social responsibility," Bicycle House has multiple projects in the works to help improve the local community. A major focus-one that Benton is particularly passionate about-is the continued development of Lake Elberta Park (which sits less than a half mile south of Bicycle House) and the potential addition of a trailhead that will connect the park's paved, multi-use pathway to the northern-most section of the 20.5-mile St. Marks rail-trail. Currently, the nearest St. Mark's trailhead is located five miles further south.
The recently formed Friends of Lake Elberta Park, a group started by Benton and other passionate locals, is also advocating for turning an abandoned Church's Fried Chicken building that sits adjacent to the lake path into an outdoor center. Benton believes this would not only strengthen the blighted African-American community surrounding the park, but result in enhanced recreation opportunities for the entire city.
"The city would greatly benefit from a place-a hub-where people of all different outdoor interests could come together," says Benton. "In addition to enhancing the recreational opportunities and networks in the city, it could serve as a great economic and social stimulus for the surrounding community."
It's the diversity and comradery-in the form of volunteers, riders and visitors-that Benton highlights as the essence of Bicycle House. He uses an anecdote to illustrate the point.
"We had a guy come in a couple months ago from Holland who decided to stay the night. He's an electrical engineer. When he woke up the next morning, he asked how he could help. I wanted to go for a bike ride, so he told me to take the day off and volunteered to look after things for me. I come back and he's running the place! Three of my volunteers are in the master's in electrical engineering program at Florida State University. One is from India, and one is from China. They and a couple others are talking to him about electrical engineering while working on a bike for a homeless gentleman who needed assistance.
"He asked if he could show his slides from his trips around the world, so we threw an impromptu show-and-tell and promoted it through Facebook. Fifteen people came and enjoyed his slides over a beer.
"That's Bicycle House. That's how we work."
Want to see more? Check out this great slideshow on the Bicycle House website.