The Madison nonprofit organization Wheels for Winners has been rewarding young people with strong records of community service with rebuilt and repaired bicycles for 23 years. But without volunteers, the organization would have long ago been stopped in its tracks. “Not a lot of charities can persist on our small operating budget,” says Richard Castelnuovo MS’94, who has volunteered with Wheels for Winners for 10 years.
“It’s not a free bike — it’s an earned bike.”
Hopeful bicycle recipients are required to submit a written record of at least 15 hours of community service, which is verified by a partner organization. And, in the words of Castelnuovo, recipients come to understand that “it’s not a free bike — it’s an earned bike,” and the service lends greater meaning to their reward.
Steven Bagwell, who has volunteered with Wheels for Winners for six years, says the organization not only saves hundreds of bicycles from landfills, but it also reaches out to underserved east-Madison communities to provide an easy and healthful transportation option.
Bagwell also hopes that the work has a “seeding function” for volunteers. UW–Madison students in particular get to see and understand the needs of an area of the city in which they may never have set foot, and their volunteer work reinforces the connection of the campus to such parts of the community.
“There’s a real danger of the university being isolated from the town, according to Bagwell, who also works at the UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health. “I’ve seen the Badger Volunteers who come over from the Morgridge Center, and this is a real way for them to connect to the east side.”
Although students are encouraged to work for the organization beyond the end of their semester, Bagwell says he is satisfied if the work inspires students to apply their experiences to other underserved communities in need of the model or idea of Wheels for Winners.
Above all, Castelnuovo and Bagwell care about creating a meaningful work experience.
“If you can’t enjoy this, then we’re not doing something right,” says Bagwell. “We’re a pretty close community.”