Early this year, Bobby Toney had an epiphany after seeing, of all things, a bike in a trash can.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I fixed it and gave it to a kid?’" said Toney, 46, who lives in Audubon, Camden County. "Because I remember when I was a kid and had a bike — I have a lot of fine memories.”
Besides, he likes how life imitates bike riding: “In life, you will hit bumps and potholes and fall down,” he likes to say. “The same thing happens with bikes.” And we can always get back up again.
So, figuratively, the wheels began rolling for Toney. And he thought, why not repair discarded bikes and distribute them to youngsters?
The problem was, he had never done that before. So how did he learn to fix and remodel bicycles?
“YouTube,” he said.
Once Toney had watched several videos, he was off and riding.
He gave the first bike he fixed to his longtime friend Michael Africa Jr., for his daughter Alia.
“It’s a really powerful thing that Bobby is doing,” said Africa, a Delaware County resident (who will be the subject of a Dec. 3 HBO film 40 Years a Prisoner, which details his effort to release his parents, who had been members of the MOVE organization, from jail 40 years after their involvement with the group). “There are a lot of bikes that people discard that go into a landfill. This is a great way to salvage a bike and regift it.”
In the beginning, Toney financed the refurbishing out of his own pocket. As his project grew, he sought donations on his Facebook page, Bobby’s Bikes. Africa also solicited donations on Toney’s behalf via his own nonprofit, seedofwisdom.org.
And Toney recently began selling Bobby’s Bikes T-shirts, whose proceeds support the bike-rescue mission.
But his project received its biggest boost last month when he met fellow Audubon resident Nelson “Terry” Jordan Jr., 74, a retiree who once owned a bike shop and had plenty of tools and spare bicycle parts to share.
“We were both on an Audubon community page, and I saw him make requests for 20-inch bicycles and bike parts and it was like, ‘Eureka!’" Jordan said. "I had a basement full of bike parts and I was trying to get the right situation where I could either donate or sell [them] and the tools because I needed space.”
Jordan found a willing taker in Toney.
“It was a huge win-win,” said Jordan. "I get to clean my basement and he can use the tools and parts for the good work he is doing.”
Toney’s first bike was delivered in May. He has since delivered 13 more.
One of them went to the 14-year-old daughter of his childhood friend, Deitra Chamberlain of Mount Laurel.
“I had known Bobby pretty well — we grew up together and reconnected on Facebook,” Chamberlain said. “I reached out to him and said my daughter [Racquel] always wanted a BMX. He got on top of it.”
The bike was delivered in early September.
“It was absolutely wonderful. He customizes [the bike] for the child,” she said. “It’s a great gesture, something we appreciated, and my daughter was absolutely excited for it.”
He also donated three bikes to Patricia Stradford of Audubon, who learned of Toney’s mission through both his Facebook page and the Audubon community page. She reached out, and told him that she had three boys at home who could use bicycles.
“He is really kindhearted, and it’s such a great thing he does,” Stradford said. “You could see he enjoys giving back to the community.”
Donating the bikes is emotional for Toney. He makes each bike in memory of his daughter, Jemica, who was just 3 years old when she died in 1996 from bacterial meningitis. On each bike, he paints the initials JSB, which stands for Jemica Shamir Brantley.
Finding the time to devote to his two-wheeled passion can be a challenge because Toney has two jobs: During the day, he details cars at Cherry Hill Triplex; at night, he cleans Filomena’s Lakeview restaurant in Deptford after closing.
But he said that there’s nothing like fixing bikes and then presenting them to kids.
“I love them and I know kids love them, and people have so many great memories [of] riding their bike,” Toney said. “People don’t live forever, but memories do.”