WHEN I FIRST MET JOHN JONES III, leader of the East Side Riders, he sized up all 5′ 2” of me and, instead of shaking my hand, stuck his straight up in the air.
“You want to talk to me, you’re going to have to reach my hand!” he said, shaking with a big belly laugh.
“I played hoops for eight years, you know.” I responded, jumping and slapping his hand. “This is one half-white girl that can jump.”
His brother Bryan August-Jones, friend Frederick Buggs, Sr., and some of the other men helping out that day gathered around, hooting and laughing. “Oh, you wanna play a game, huh?” John challenged, dropping into a defensive stance. “The hoop is right over there…”
This was my welcome to the East Side Riders (ESR), a Watts-based group that uses cycling as a vehicle to teach kids healthy living and service to the community. Led with good humor and a firm hand by John, with assistance from Bryan, Frederick Sr. and a few friends, anywhere from 20 to 40 community members gather once a month at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee  (WLCAC) to ride through the neighborhood, feed the homeless, and sometimes perform clean-ups and other acts of service in the area.
Feeding the homeless was one of the best parts of riding, said Joshua Jones and Frederick Buggs, Jr, both 12 years old.
“I was a little nervous at first,” admitted Joshua. “You hear a lot of rumors about how [the homeless] can act up. And it’s true—some do. But what’s really cool is that you learn to cope with it. They’ll thank you and bless you…and sometimes when I see them when I’m on the metro or in the street, they’ll say, ‘Hey, you were the kid that gave me a sandwich.’” Several of the other boys from the group nodded, agreeing they liked knowing that what they did mattered to the people they helped.
This was exactly the kind of attitude that John and Bryan had hoped to instill.
Roots of Giving Back Run Deep
“We grew up giving back,” they said.
Raised on the often tough streets of Watts, they had faced a number of struggles. But their mother had always worked hard to offer the needy a place to find shelter or food, or both, even when their own resources were limited. Their four-bedroom house had as many as fifteen people living in it at once, sometimes more. Guests were usually, but not always, relatives, something that backfired only once, when they came home from church to find a guest had run off with John and Bryan’s collections of comic books and trading cards.
Their mother remained undaunted. During the holidays, she sent them to local stores with letters asking for donations so she could put together shoeboxes of small gifts for those less fortunate.
“One time, she even sent us to Oxnard to drop off two backpacks,” said John.
“Two backpacks!” Bryan laughed incredulously, waving two fingers at me. “We didn’t even have money to eat once we got there!” Instead, they dropped off the backpacks and immediately pointed their old Dodge Neon homeward.
It was her dedication to giving in the face of hardship, they agreed, that inspired them to invest in moving a bike club for kids forward.
Genesis of a Movement
A little over 3 years ago, some older gentlemen in the neighborhood, including the Jones brothers’ father, organized a group to help out in the community. When John and Bryan got involved, they brought kids into the group and built on the idea of active community engagement.
“We want it to be like a Boys and Girls’ Club without a fixed home,” said John, referring to their model of teaching community activism out in the streets rather than within a structure.
And they have major plans in the works. Besides the monthly rides, the Roll, Splash, and Run triathlon, and the Tuesday nights spent fixing bikes for free as part of the Parks after Dark summer program, they are in talks to start a bike loan program. They hope to recover bikes locked up by law enforcement, refurbish them, and then lend them out to local youth. Borrowing would cost a quarter and the only requirement would be that the bikes be brought in once a week for check-ups before being checked out again.
There is an innovative element of community building to the planned lending system: kids would have to register and get an ESR card. Then, if anything were to happen—should a crime be committed by someone using the bike, for example—law enforcement could get the bike back to the ESR and involve the ESR in reaching out to parents and getting the kid back on track.
These kinds of grassroots solutions to community problems are what the ESR do best. When they heard stories of kids having their bikes stolen or facing violence in the area around WLCAC, they convened local gang members to create Life Lanes—a safe perimeter within which kids would be able to ride unmolested.
No system is fail-proof, unfortunately. During this weekend’s Valentine’s Day Ride 4 Love  event, several young men looking to start something pulled up at a corner, shouting out their affiliation. Luckily, the situation was defused, but with 40 riders participating in the event, including very small children, the potential for the situation to turn very ugly very quickly was certainly there.
Safety Concerns are Ever-Present
“It gets closer and closer every time,” said Frederick Jr., voicing his fear of getting shot.
Less than a week ago, two young men had been shot and killed mid-day, just three blocks from his house (and, incidentally, just two blocks from where the CicLAvia-hosted ride had passed a few weeks earlier).
But for Frederick, Jr., violence is even closer to home—his own father was shot several years ago at a gas station by some young men trying to start a confrontation. Although Frederick, Sr., walked away rather than fight, they shot him anyways, hitting him in the thigh and blowing open his femoral artery.
“I thought I’d be going back to work that night, but that must have been the painkillers talking,” said Frederick, Sr., with a wry smile. “I was in the hospital for the next two weeks!”
Having a safe activity for his son was an important element of his involvement in the ESR, he said. But more than that, it was an activity they could do together. “I didn’t want him to be off with just kids and I couldn’t take him around my crowd, so I said, ‘Let’s meet half-way,’ and we started riding with John.” Since then, he’s become an integral part of the ESR, using his bike-building skills to fix up the bikes used by the kids and being a constant presence to help keep kids in line.
A Winning Combination
The combination of dedicated parents and a community mission seems to be what gives the kids a sense of purpose and a desire to stay with the group, even when it gets gross and they are cleaning up some really dirty streets, as they did on MLK day.
“My son told me that he thought we were rich,” said John, his voice catching a bit. Not rich in the sense of money, Joshua had told him, but “rich in the sense of what we do for everyone else.”
Like his father, Joshua doesn’t usually give away his emotions, John confessed. “So, for my son to tell me that…” his voice trailed off. After a pause, he shrugged: “I got to continue to do this.”
For more information on the East Side Riders, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org