Breaking the cycle

Sensible Cyclery offers those with mental illness a chance to fix bikes—and their lives

Dave Mahan (left) runs Sensible Cyclery, a bike shop that employs people with mental illnesses. On a recent afternoon, he and Paul Delgado work on handlebars.

Dave Mahan (left) runs Sensible Cyclery, a bike shop that employs people with mental illnesses. On a recent afternoon, he and Paul Delgado work on handlebars.

Photo By Hillary Feeney

Sensible Cyclery helped Michael Noland turn his life around. Until two years ago, Noland’s entanglement with drugs and alcohol complicated his schizophrenia. Now, he is sober, steadily employed and the leader of his son’s Cub Scouts troop.

Sensible Cyclery, a bicycle reconditioning business located at 2505 The Esplanade, offers adults with a history of mental illness, like Noland, a steady job and supportive work environment.

“For being on drugs and getting as out there as I did, it’s amazing that I got a job here and have stayed for two years,” Noland said. “Between being on probation and having to get my life together, this job helps me deal with what’s on my mind.”

Currently, the bicycle shop employs 51 individuals with mental-health issues who receive services from Butte County Behavioral Health (BCBH). By giving people a job to report to on a regular basis, Sensible Cyclery teaches workers valuable repair and social skills, said Dave Mahan, the program coordinator of vocational services for Caminar, a group that helps disabled residents of Butte County.

When several BCBH clients expressed interest in learning about bicycle repair, representatives approached Caminar about starting the shop. With funding from BCBH, Sensible Cyclery was opened in August 2008. The shop refurbishes and sells bicycles that are donated from local residents, the landfill and the Chico Police Department.

As employees learn how to refurbish bicycles, they also gain a sense of accomplishment, Mahan said

“We want to break that cycle of learned helplessness,” Mahan said. “We provide this avenue to get that started.”

For Noland, his job at Sensible Cyclery was instrumental in turning his life around. Before working there, he was staying at a sober-living house and had never held a job for more than two weeks.

He was working at a cleaning business that is also run through Caminar when he received the offer to work at the bicycle shop. Through training with Mahan, he has learned everything from how to sand down a bicycle’s frame to how to replace its bolts. Seeing that he could fix the problems associated with old bicycles made him more confident that he could tackle the “wreckage” that he had created in his personal life, Noland said.

“In the bike-repair industry, everything is fixable because it is a mechanical process,” Noland said. “Every bike can be taken apart, cleaned, fixed and put back together.”

The process of working on a project from start to finish can be therapeutic for people with mental illness. A sense of achievement bolsters their confidence and self-esteem, and learning new skills and bringing in a paycheck makes them feel more in control of their mental illness, said Michelle Brousseau, the employment coordinator for BCBH.

“Giving them a goal to accomplish can help with positive symptoms like voices and delusions because the mind is more focused on work,” Brousseau explained.

This is the case for 56-year-old Stanley Siemianowski, who also works at Sensible Cyclery, as a bicycle mechanic. Before hearing about Caminar, he was living out of his truck for four years after his bipolar disorder caused his life to spiral out of control.

Since the bicycle shop started, Siemianowski has been working there and living in the adjoining Avenida Apartments. These studio apartments are designed for disabled people that have been homeless, Mahan said.

After a string of lost jobs and failed romances, Siemianowski was in the doldrums. By finding a place to live and a part-time job, he has gotten his life back on track, he said.

Siemianowski appreciates that his mood swings are understood in the workplace and the positive relationship he has with Mahan.

“Even if you do something wrong, Dave doesn’t degrade you,” Siemianowski said. “Since he is so supportive, he makes you want to work with him.”

For Siemianowski, Noland, and the other employees at Sensible Cyclery, the positive work environment helps them both financially and emotionally.

“Everyone that I work with here has the same kind of problems that I do,” Siemianowski said. “I look out for them, they look out for me, and we all make progress in life.”