Tucked away on Lanier Drive in Silver Spring sits a tidy shed surrounded by dozens of old bikes of all colors and sizes. On any given day, a passerby may hear classic rock or folk music playing aloud while Manuel Vera, 73, fixes up old bikes in his workshop.
Not for himself, or family, or neighbors. But for Afghan refugees who recently fled to the U.S.
“I do feel a connection with [the refugees] because I’m an immigrant myself,” Vera said. “Although, in the case of my family, we weren’t getting away from famine, political turmoil, or economic collapse, like a lot of folks are living through now.”
Vera was born in Peru and came to the U.S. in 1964. His family lived on Long Island for about three years before moving to Montgomery County. He graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac in 1968 — their second ever graduating class.
As of Wednesday July 26, he said he has fixed and donated 480 bikes.
Despite what some may think, “I’m not a volunteer,” Vera insists. He partners with charitable organizations, including International Rescue Committee and Homes not Borders, to schedule pick-ups and order requests, but he handles the root of his work on his own in his shop.
When asked if he wants to host volunteers of his own or work with an organization, Vera politely declines.
“I prefer working on my own time,” Vera said. “My own terms.”
Kim Gandy, a volunteer with KindWorks (a nonprofit volunteer organization in the D.C. metro area), initially connected with Vera on Facebook. She had requested bikes for an Afghan family on a local “Buy Nothing” group, which is an online group where you can give or request items from neighbors. A commenter tagged Vera on her post, who said he would be happy to help the family.
“That was just the beginning,” Gandy said. “Since then, he has helped so many families.”
Vera is an innate problem solver and said that he likes that every bike brings its own challenge.
“I spend a lot of time just staring at a bike or particular part, trying to figure out what to do. I’m not an expert. I’m not a professional mechanic,” he said, adding if a problem has him especially stuck, he’ll turn to a local bike shop for help – or YouTube.
He probably wouldn’t make it as a mechanic in a bike shop, Vera said, because he’s not about production speed.
“It’s more about the journey for me, I just savor the moment of fixing a bike.”
When the pandemic started in 2020, Vera, who was recently retired from his job as a marketing energy efficiency program manager at Pepco, found himself with a lot of free time. That’s when he posted an announcement to his neighborhood listserv, offering to provide free tune-ups and bike repairs.
Once that received a “pretty good response,” Vera thought to himself, “there’s got to be dozens of bikes in people’s basements that never get used.”
Turns out, there were a lot more than he expected.
So, Vera decided to solicit bike donations from his neighbors to give away to those in need.
Sandra Marquardt, founder of the Getty Park Farmers Market in Silver Spring, has helped to bring in some of the used bike donations. She said Vera’s work is “essential” to the community.
“We know how hard it is to get around Montgomery County, especially if you don’t have money, so this is a great program,” Marquardt said.
In late 2020, Vera began standing in Downtown Silver Spring with a sign that read “free bikes.”
It took people a bit to get over the initial shock and they’d ask, “are these really free?”, Vera said. After he insisted they were, Vera would help them pick out their own bike.
Typically, Vera estimated he could give away a carload of bikes in about 30 minutes.
But, once the Afghan government fell in 2021 and an influx of refugees came to the DMV, he began to focus his efforts on those communities rather than giving bikes away randomly.
“It’s a little bit more disciplined because I’m able to target specific people,” Vera said, matching bikes according to gender and size.
A large whiteboard hangs in Vera’s shop to track his orders, with requests and modifications specified to the biker’s needs. For a man working regular night shifts as a security guard, Vera installed lights on the front and back and gave him a reflective vest, lock and helmet. Young boys tend to request bikes with gear shifts, he said.
Everything about Vera’s process is meticulous and organized – from labeled drawers to records of every bike he’s fixed and donated. He also tracks how much he’s spent on bike parts, which is around $4,000. He also received around $7,000 in donations after he was featured in The Washington Post in 2021, to help with this process.
Volunteers will either come to pick up the bikes, or Vera will deliver them directly.
Most refugees come to America with “just the clothes on their back… they didn’t expect to own a bike,” Vera said. “It’s not even on their shopping list.”
Whether it’s for commuting or just riding around with friends, bikes provide huge benefits to the refugee community.
“There’s no question that having a bicycle opens up a whole range of possibilities for a refugee family that could not begin to afford a car,” Gandy said. “It means that they can apply for jobs that are more than a mile away… it means they can get to the grocery store regularly.”
Plus, the families are incredibly appreciative of Vera’s work; several thank-you cards from children are hung up on the walls of his workshop.
“It’s a great feeling to look at their faces when they get the bikes,” Vera said. “It gives me joy.”
Vera likes to keep himself busy. He plays in two bands (he specializes in folk, rock and blues), kayaks, hikes, spends time with his granddaughter, and has fixed bikes as a hobby for over two decades.
This process is as enriching to him as it is for the people he donates to, and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“As long as I get requests, people want bikes and as long as people have bikes to donate to me, I think I’m going to keep it going,” he said.