Although Dustin LaFont's path was leading him to be a teacher, he changed course when he founded the youth development program Front Yard Bikes in 2010.
Nine years ago, through a resident leader he knew while volunteering at a community garden in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dustin met a boy with a beat-up bike who was looking for help repairing it. The encounter changed Dustin's life. "I told him that I would lend a hand, but I wanted him to have all the tools and learn how to do it himself, and basically earn a bike from a junk pile of bikes that I had, because his was so bad off," Dustin said.
Dustin worked with the boy for a couple of days. Together, they repaired the bike and the boy rode off. "That seemed like a great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Dustin said. "But then I met his brother, and then another friend, another friend, another friend, and then there were 15 kids in the front yard of my rent house."
Dustin knew this was an opportunity to do something special in his community. He officially founded Front Yard Bikes, which serves youth 6 to 22 years old in Mid City and South Baton Rouge. Participants learn everything from bike repair to welding to gardening.
Each participant has the opportunity to earn his own bike. After picking the desired bike from the dozens of donated bicycles, the student will work with Dustin or another staff member to perform a diagnostic, and then get to work, repairing the bike and making anywhere from cosmetic changes to complete overhauls.
Each participant must work a designated number of hours to earn his bike. Last year, Front Yard Bikes served 303 youth and 313 bikes were earned. Overall, more than 1,000 bikes have been repaired through the program.
Every year, Front Yard Bikes has expanded its programming. It now includes three locations, including a retail bike shop that the program purchased a couple of years ago, and a building on a one-acre park, where they do most of the welding and bike repair. They also hold summer camp and run a community garden and several greenhouses at the location.
In the future, Dustin hopes to continue to expand the program's welding shop, expand the community garden and eventually even open a garden-to-table café one day. "Those are all big dreams," Dustin said.
He is also working to arrange accreditation opportunities through the local vocational schools and community colleges so Front Yard Bikes' participants can gain credit for the technical skills they are learning.
Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, a NeighborWorks network organization, which nominated Front Yard Bikes for the Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership, sees the important impact Dustin and his program have made in the lives of youth in the city.
While some people pay lip service to the idea of "changing the world" and "making a difference," Dustin has been all in on his commitment, said Marlee Pittman, community building and engagement manager with Mid City Redevelopment Alliance.
"He has really earned the trust and respect of his neighbors, because he did what he said he was going to do. He didn't quit and he didn't leave," said Marlee. "He is honest, and he is real with the parents and the students that he works with."
With funding and support from their partners, Front Yard Bikes offers paid internships at the bike shop, and place youth in jobs and internships with organizations around the city. Dustin has also brought on several of the young adults as employees at the various locations.
He quit teaching in 2014, to focus on Front Yard Bikes full time, and help children to reach their full potential. "The youth in our community are unbelievable resource," said Dustin. "They are so amazing ― so talented, so capable."
He is sick of hearing about negative stereotypes of the youth the program serves. When asked what people get wrong about the youth of South Baton Rouge, he sees it clearly. "They have the statistics wrong in our area. We don't have liabilities. We don't have a problem to fix in our youth," Dustin said. "They are not people to be saved. They are amazing people, right here, right now."
He knows how much his students can achieve and wants to be part of each one of their success stories. What Dustin and Front Yard Bikes have achieved in Baton Rouge is certainly special, but he believes that other communities can do the same. For resident leaders looking to create an impact in their communities, Dustin offers some advice: Go ahead and get started.
"I believe God made everybody a very unique resource for right where they are," Dustin said. "You are the right person at the right time. Walk in that; believe it; and you can achieve such amazing things with that kind of confidence."