Urban Legend: Karen Overton

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Karen Overton doesn’t look Dominican. But when Yoandy Ramirez’ high school shut down a few years ago, he says, Overton–white, blonde and blue-eyed–“made believe that she was my moms,” to help her young student get his transcript for his new school.

Overton’s main job is as the director of Recycle-a-Bicycle, New York’s only bicycle recycling program, but it’s her generosity and resourcefulness, like she showed Ramirez, that makes her legendary among friends and co-workers.

Recycle-a-Bicycle started in 1994 when Overton, then working at the transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, commandeered a Washington Heights middle school classroom to teach kids how to fix bikes, from patching flat tires to overhauling clunky handlebars. At first, Overton learned right along with the kids. But seven years later, the 40-year-old Massachusetts native is a skilled mechanic–with the sinewy forearms to prove it.

Now independent of Transportation Alternatives, the program has expanded to four schools, nearly doubled its annual number of students, opened two retail shops, and currently employs eight full-time staff, some of them former program graduates–including Ramirez, now a shop manager. In addition to its school-based classes, the program also encourages young cyclists ages 10 to 18 to map their neighborhoods–and explore the city–via three bike riding clubs.

The point of it all, says Overton, is twofold: recycling and youth job training. With the current waste disposal and budget crises, she reasons, turning trash to cash makes sense. “We have to educate the government that [recycling] is a good use of their time and money,” she says, pointing to the steady sales at their shops. For their part, the kids learn a marketable skill and, with enough hard work, ride away with a bike they put together themselves.

Blending social justice with retail business has won support from local funders. Long supported by groups focusing on youth or environmental issues, Recycle-a-Bicycle recently won a grant from Seedco. The grant, aimed at supporting business ventures with a social mission, gave Overton a chance to develop the business end of her work. Recycle-a-Bicycle won out, says Seedco’s director Jaycee Pribulsky, because “Karen is the quintessential entrepreneur, always looking for new opportunities to expand her work.”

That Overton is winning grants for a unique combination of mission and business isn’t surprising; having built the program from the ground up, she’s been doing intense multitasking for years. “She’s running two businesses, writing grants, planning functions, doing clerical work. And mechanics. And holds a relationship. At the same time,” marvels the Brooklyn shop’s manager, Noah Harper. “It’s pretty Renaissance.”