by Lisa Tramontana
Like the Pied Piper, Dustin LaFont had children following him just about everywhere. It started with a young neighbor who needed help fixing his bike, and pretty soon, there was a steady stream of kids in LaFont’s front yard with flat tires and broken gears. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was building a ministry, one that would become a full-fledged nonprofit organization that teaches important life skills, builds character and encourages a strong work ethic.
The path to Front Yard Bikes began when LaFont was 23 and had just graduated from LSU with a master’s degree in education. He needed an inexpensive place to live and ended up in the West Roosevelt neighborhood between Nicholson Drive and River Road. He noticed some of the kids in the area rode bikes that were practically falling apart. One child was literally riding around on metal rims. One day, 13-year-old Rejay Wilson showed up on a squeaky, broken-down bike and asked LaFont if he could help repair it. Of course, LaFont obliged. It didn’t take long for LaFont and his young neighbors to realize they needed each other.
“At that point in my life, I had been looking for some avenue to help people and inspire positive change,” LaFont said. “And then one day, as I looked at all these kids in my yard, I said, ‘God, why have you brought all these kids here?’ Then it dawned on me.”
LaFont made a deal with the kids who sought him out. He would instruct them, but they would have to help make the repairs themselves. Initially, his landlord was uncomfortable about the situation — all those kids working with tools on his property — but he began to see the value of what was happening. “I was on the verge of being evicted,” LaFont said. “And instead, my landlord had a change of heart and ended up giving me a workshop in the same neighborhood.”
It was a dark and dusty place made of wood and tin … no electricity, but just $300 a month. And right away, it was buzzing with activity. Within minutes of unlocking the shop on weekday afternoons, kids started appearing. They learned how to use tools. They took old bikes apart and built new ones. And with LaFont as their mentor, they learned about respect, hard work, leadership and teamwork.
“I began to feel a sense of destiny in all this,” LaFont said. “Baton Rouge has so many racial, social and economic barriers that keep people apart. I felt like our bikes were building a bridge and bringing people together.”
LaFont was working as a social studies teacher during this time and could only get to the shop a few times a week. But a private donor who heard about the program offered to pay his salary so he could work at the shop full-time. “There’s no doubt God had a hand in this,” LaFont said. “Here was an opportunity. I had to walk through that door and not be fearful.”
The next coincidence was even more incredible. LaFont was making small talk with a stranger and happened to mention Front Yard Bikes. He was completely unaware that the man he was speaking with was a BREC employee, and that BREC was looking for a community project that involved one of its parks. That conversation led to Front Yard Bikes opening a second facility at the Terrace Street Park. Participants can repair or build their own bikes, “earn” a bike by working in the shop for “credit,” and enjoy Friday bike rides to local parks, museums and libraries.
“On the days we meet, we always start with a moment of thanksgiving and a prayer,” LaFont said. “Then we have everyone tell a little about themselves. It’s an ‘identity shaping’ exercise.”
For newcomers to the group, this identity shaping can be life-changing. “We basically remind the kids that they are special in God’s eyes,” LaFont said. “I pray over them. I say, ‘God, thank you for bringing to us these wonderful kids in south Baton Rouge. They are so skilled, so talented, so smart. They have such bright futures ahead of them. I am so proud and grateful that they have joined us today.”
When they arrive at Front Yard Bikes, some children may not feel special or loved or valued. But they certainly do by the time they leave.
LaFont’s wife Kim, a teacher at Terrace Elementary, is also a big part of Front Yard Bikes. The couple met through AmeriCorps, and LaFont says he “fell in love with her heart.” They have an 11-month-old son named Abram. Life is good.
“Sometimes, you just know you’re in God’s favor,” LaFont said. “I feel like he put me in a position to make certain things happen. But then so many other things just fell into place. I hope to continue this ministry, but I know that ultimately, God is in charge.”