The wheel deal, one man’s mission to help those in need

Austin Fleskes

David Stitzel, a long-time resident of Fort Collins, has turned his experiences and hardships into a non-profit program which provides bicycles to those in need.

David Stitzel has been through it all: family sickness, horrible injury and homelessness. But now, with a life of experience behind him, he has turned his eye to helping the community.

Stitzel finds and refurbishes abandoned bikes from across Fort Collins and donates them to those in need through a partnership with FoCo Cafe, a non-profit, community based cafe in northern Fort Collins.

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Stitzel’s desire to serve the community grew from his experiences and struggles with homelessness, which make his success story all the more gratifying.

The life of David Stitzel

David Stitzel sits in the living room of his home near Colorado State University’s campus. Stitzel is a CSU alumnus and works on restoring bikes to donate to members of the Fort Collins community in need of a reliable mode of transportation. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

Stitzel moved to Fort Collins when he was just two years old and grew up on East Laurel Street, just minutes away from Colorado State University. 

“(My dad) taught here at CSU until he retired, and I believe that was 20 plus years,” Stitzel said. “My mother taught over there for a time as well.”

Stitzel said that his mom was a large part of his upbringing and an even larger influence on his life. Stitzel said his mother was both religious and involved in the community, staying up night after night to write federal grants for her program that would soon become the Neighbor to Neighbor program

In my late 50s, I found myself on the street, and it was a shock. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

-David Stitzel, Fort Collins resident and bike refurbisher

In the early ’90s, Stitzel got married. However, the marriage didn’t last long and ended in a “nasty divorce.” Following the divorce, Stitzel said he became dependent on alcohol, which he described as an off-and-on experience.

David Stitzel works on refurbishing a bike in his home near Colorado State University’s campus in central Fort Collins. Stitzel refurbishes and fixes bikes that he later donates to people in need through a partnership with the FoCo Cafe. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

But things got worse. After his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Stitzel moved in with her to try and support her through her sickness.

“The house I was supposed to inherit had to be sold to pay for her medical treatment,” Stitzel said.

The company Stitzel was working for at the time got downsized, leaving him without a job. In 2011, a distracted driver clipped Stitzel while riding his bike, leading to a serious injury and “monstrous” medical bills that he was never able to pay off.

“In my late 50s I found myself on the street, and it was a shock,” Stitzel said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

Starting in 2013, Stitzel spent three years trying to make it through. During the summer and warmer seasons, Stitzel lived at a campsite down by the Cache la Poudre River near Lemay and Riverside avenues.

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But it was the winters that brought Stitzel the most trouble.

It was during these times that Stitzel often thought about when he wasn’t homeless, to the times when he had a whole room full of outdoor and camping gear — gear that he donated because he had stopped using it. 

“I gave it all away not realizing I would soon be homeless, and I would need that minus 20-degree sleeping bag,” Stitzel said.

During the first winter, Stitzel had a friend in Loveland who gave him a space to live for a while and eventually showed him to a shelter with a warming center for those without homes.

When the second winter rolled around, Stitzel found himself in local Fort Collins centers. However, Stitzel said that he had a terrible time while in those shelters.

“Every time I stayed there, something got stolen,” Stitzel said. “One time they stole my boots. I mean, nothing like kicking a man when he is already down.”

Because of his injury and his age, Stitzel attempted to get money from the Social Security program. Getting this money took over 18 months, leaving Stitzel without a home and low on money for a third winter.

Stitzel found a part time job managing a motel in Walden during the third winter while he waited for his money.

People say, ‘well these people want to be homeless.’ Well I met guys when I was homeless that were professionals or tradesmen, but it doesn’t do any good if you can’t break the cycle.”

-David Stitzel, Fort Collins resident and bike refurbisher

But after the third and final winter, after years of waking up in the dirt, staying in the cold or being moved and even arrested, Stitzel’s luck began to turn. He said he fully credits what happened to God because it was simply good timing.

Stitzel finally met someone who was able to help him get in touch with the Social Security Administration to get his money. From there, he moved into a motel on College Avenue and then into an old house on Howes Street in 2016, a house that he would put years of work into to restore and repair.

Stitzel explained that many people during times of homelessness, including himself, face a difficult cycle that isn’t easy to break when you don’t have a stable foundation. 

“That is one of the big problems,” Stitzel said. “People say ‘Well these people want to be homeless.’ Well, I met guys when I was homeless that were professionals or tradesmen, but it doesn’t do any good if you can’t break the cycle.”

Stitzel said he thinks everyone must think about homelessness as a situation that they could fall into, because anyone can. 

“Here I was: I had a house, a nice job, a nice car and it (was) just…” Stitzel said, snapping his fingers. “Gone.”

But after breaking through this oppressive cycle, Stitzel was able to turn back to the community that he had so recently been a part of to try and help.

“I am so grateful for what I have now, for the blessings and the grace God has shown me,” Stitzel said. “How can I not give back?”

An extra set of wheels and a new sense of pride

Stitzel fondly remembers a quote on a poster he made for his church that still drives him to this day, a quote by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

“’We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give,’” Stitzel recounted. “Now my life is about giving. I find the greatest pleasure in it.”

Stitzel’s bike program came from his past as an avid cyclist and machinist.

At FoCo Cafe, we really find importance in not having people qualify for things. It can be embarrassing, (with) some people not (qualifying) for things but still (needing) a handout. So literally anyone can come in and say ‘can I volunteer 30 hours for a bike?’ and we could do that.”

-Mallory Garneau, executive director of FoCo Cafe

It also came from what he saw walking around his neighborhood, noticing bikes abandoned or thrown away for no real reason.

“Your garbage, your trash, might be the means for somebody to get around, to get a job, to get out of the cycle,” Stitzel said. “A lot of people don’t consider it.”

Stitzel finds bikes around Fort Collins that have been abandoned and brings them back to his workbench, a long plank on top of a pool table, and fixes them up. Whether small jobs or big jobs, Stitzel makes the bikes practically new again for those in need.

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  • A bike sits on David Stitzel’s makeshift workbench at his home in central Fort Collins. Stitzel fixes and refurbishes bikes that he reclaims or receives as donations. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

    Collegian | Forrest Czarnecki

  • David Stitzel’s toolkit contains only the essentials for fixing parts, such as pedals, bolts, derailleurs and chains. Stitzel fixes and refurbishes bikes that he reclaims or receives as donations. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

    Collegian | Forrest Czarnecki

  • A bike sits upside down on David Stitzel’s workbench in the living room of his home near Colorado State University’s campus. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

    Collegian | Forrest Czarnecki

  • The open brake of a bike reflects light in David Stitzel’s living room while he refurbishes it and gets the bike back in working order. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

    Collegian | Forrest Czarnecki

  • A collection of personal and project bikes fill up a couple corners of David Stitzel’s work space and living room. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

    Collegian | Forrest Czarnecki

  • David Stitzel wipes up rainwater that has leaked out of a bike he’s in the process of refurbishing. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

    Collegian | Forrest Czarnecki

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Initially selling or donating some of the fixed bikes, Stitzel eventually came in contact with the FoCo Cafe. After partnering up only a few months ago, the plan was put into place. A simple plan to give back to the community in a cyclical way.

“It is an awesome program, and I appreciate it so much. They are awesome bikes, and it is so simple. You just have to share your time, and it is so easy. It’s great.”

-Cliff Adams, FoCo Cafe volunteer and bike recipient

As of now, the program works through a simple set of rules. Those that want to get a bike through the program make a verbal agreement with FoCo Cafe to work a certain number of hours a week, usually around 20-30 according to Mallory Garneau, executive director of FoCo Cafe, and after reaching a certain hour quota, they get their newly refurbished bike.

“At FoCo Cafe, we really find importance in not having people qualify for things,” Garneau said. “It can be embarrassing, some people not (qualifying) for things but still (needing) a handout. So literally anyone can come in and say ‘Can I volunteer 30 hours for a bike?’ and we could do that.”

Mallory Garneau is the executive director of FoCo Cafe, the business that David Stitzel partners with to donate refurbished bikes with the goal of helping those in need obtain a reliable mode of transportation. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

While the program is fresh, it has already begun to help those in need. Cliff Adams, a volunteer at FoCo Cafe and recipient of a bike from the program, said it is something truly fantastic. 

“It is an awesome program, and I appreciate it so much,” Adams said. “They are awesome bikes, and it is so simple. You just have to share your time, and it is so easy. It’s great.”

Stitzel’s focus on bikes goes further than just a machinist background and an interest in the cycling world. He explained that when someone is homeless, a bike means everything. Getting around to places that public transport can’t take you and getting off your feet can make a huge impact, Stitzel said.

“If you have to carry your house on your back in a heavy backpack, that is another issue; where do you keep your stuff?” Stitzel said. “I had all mine vanish more than once.”

But it goes further than storage.

“You have so little when you are homeless; it gives you a sense of value,” Stitzel said.

Both Garneau and Adams agreed with the importance that a bike has for somebody experiencing homelessness. 

“You cannot rely on the bus because it is a half hour in between; there is no way to get around,” Adams said. “You have to have wheels, and a bike is perfect. Besides, it gets rid of the belly too.”

Refurbished bikes wait in a storage garage at the FoCo Cafe. In the two months that Stitzel has been partnering with the cafe, he has made nearly 20 bikes available for donation. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

Garneau said that she has seen people come through FoCo Cafe and become self sufficient, but when their bike gets stolen, it is crushing because it is so important to them.

The biggest obstacle right now for FoCo Cafe and the bike program is a lack of locks. Since locks are not provided, bikes can get stolen very easily, which happened to Adams with his bike early on. Garneau said that she is currently looking for a sponsor of sorts in order to give locks to those in the program so that they can safely secure their bike.

The program is one part of a larger picture in Stitzel’s eyes: volunteering and helping those in need.

“It’s about doing the right thing.”

When thinking about his ultimate piece of life advice, Stitzel paused before answering.

“I would say my relationship with God drove everything behind all of this,” Stitzel said. “I lived most of my life chasing the material dream like most people, only to discover (nothing) in it.”

Stitzel followed this statement with a question.

“Have you ever seen a U-Haul behind a hearse?” Stitzel said. “I found that the greatest pleasure is assisting others and giving other people hope.”

Stitzel said this hope often comes from the act of volunteering and helping those in need.

“We can never have enough people or support on the ground to help do everything all the time,” said Liz Davis, field education director with the CSU school of social work.

David Stitzel sits in the living room of his home near Colorado State University’s campus. Stitzel is a CSU alumnus and works on restoring bikes to donate to members of the Fort Collins community who are in need of a reliable, safe mode of transportation. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

When those facing homelessness feel like nobody cares about them, Stitzel said that the simple act of volunteering can show those in need that there are people that care. 

“When you’re homeless, you feel like society has just thrown you out, kicked you to the curb,” Stitzel said. “And when people volunteer to help, it not only lifts up homeless (people), but I found in my time it lifts you up too. It’s a feel-good thing. It’s about doing the right thing.”

That is the recipe for Stitzel’s happiness: his faith and his dedication to the people that need assistance — assistance that comes in the form of a new set of wheels. 

“That’s my formula for happiness,” Stitzel said. “It might not work for others, but it works for me.”

Austin Fleskes can be reached at managingeditor@collegian.com or on Twitter @Austinfleskes07.