Lake County veterans have learned about the chance to receive free bicycles from Mitch Siegel, who works as a job developer for Catholic Charities.
Siegel has delivered about bikes to veterans in Lake County, with 19 more to go. One by one, his intern Matt Lindemeier is polishing them, greasing the chains and making repairs.
The veterans are using them to get to work or a job interview and for recreation, Siegel said.
Siegel recalled lamenting to Lake County Bike Project board member David Motley about the transportation situation in Lake County. "It's hard for anyone without their own transportation to get to jobs or to interviews for potential jobs. There's a big gap in the bus service," Siegel said.
Motley suggested he contact Wadsworth resident Ishmael Guzman, president of the Lake County Bike Project, which collects used bikes to give to those who cannot afford them.
"Once I talked to Ishmael and he told me about how many bikes he had, I sent emails out to clients and community partners asking if they needed bicycles," Siegel said.
He received 27 requests for bikes from veterans — some of whom are in transitional residence programs after being homeless, and others who are seeking employment, he said.
Siegel recently delivered a 10-speed Schwinn bicycle to North Chicago resident Robert Kokaska, who lives about a half-mile from work.
"I can use my bike to get to work and back," said Kokaska, who does not have access to a car. "This bike will also allow me to get to different places to catch transportation farther out."
Kokaska added that he can ride his bike to the Metra station, chain his bike there and then go downtown for a job interview. Kokaska said Siegel is helping him seek better employment.
Kokaska, who served in the Air Force in the 1970s, said the last time he had a bike was about nine years ago.
"I'm getting more exercise now," he said. "That's good for everybody."
According to Siegel, Army veteran Frank Springfield received a blue 10-speed bicycle just after landing a job in a warehouse in Waukegan.
"He said he's going to be riding his bike to his new job," Siegel said. "It's just so wonderful to see."
Springfield described how he rode his bike for 15 minutes from his home to work at Akzo Nobel in Waukegan on July 11.
"I was there right on time," Springfield said. "I was so happy. I got a new job and a new bicycle. Life is good. I've been looking for a job for three months. It's good to get back to work again."
His wife, Cynthia Springfield, drives to work, so he'd have to walk or find other means of transportation if he didn't have the bike, he said.
Guzman likes hearing stories like those.
"I'm very honored to be able to help the veterans," he said. "Ever since I was a child, veterans have always stood out to me. I've always had the utmost respect for them."
Guzman works as a computer assistant at Waukegan School District 60, and spends his other time riding his bike and volunteering for the Lake County Bike Project.
"We advocate for safe cycling and healthier communities," he said. "One of our main goals has always been to give away bicycles."
Most of the bicycles the bike project receives come from the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, which hosts recycling events. People drop off their bikes at the events, then SWALCO gives them to the Lake County Bike Project to store and donate to folks who need them.
"We've probably given away more than 100 bicycles in the past three years," Guzman said.
Since Siegel contacted him, "the majority of our inventory has been depleted," Guzman said.
Bicycles are certainly needed and appreciated by Lake County veterans, said Siegel.
"I didn't realize I'd get so many requests. I just got another one when I came in this morning that I had to turn down," he said.
Sheryl DeVore is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.