Jimmy Pereira believes in the healing power of the bicycle.
“Bikes are good for your health, good for your community, and good for your wallet,” he said. “I know they’re not the answer to every problem, but they are a way toward a better tomorrow.”
Pereira recently started working at the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit organization that encourages bicycling for fun, fitness, and transportation. He hopes to get more people riding, especially those who might not necessarily think about biking.
“I know bikes won’t solve all of our problems, but if you bike, you have a chance to live a better life,” he said.
A few years ago, Pereira’s life was headed in the wrong direction. Quite simply, the idea of a better tomorrow, the idea of a better life, seemed like a stretch.
As a teen in Brockton, Pereira hung out with the wrong crowd, the kind of kids who were getting into trouble. After a while, Pereira got into trouble, too.
“I broke into a house,” he said. “I thought I’d get a substantial amount of money, but instead, I got a substantial amount of time at DYS,’’ the state’s Department of Youth Services.
His family was shocked.
“They knew this wasn’t me, but they also knew I had strayed into the streets. I was embarrassed that I had harmed someone else and that I had broken my family's trust.”
Pereira was committed to the juvenile justice agency at the age of 14. When he was first placed in detention he was scared, and so he did what lots of teens do when they are scared: He acted like he didn’t care.
“I was stubborn and rowdy at first,” he said. “And then I calmed down. I realized that my caseworker and my counselors were trying to help me. They gave me guidance, and I used that guidance to change.”
For Pereira, change meant learning about his culture (his family is from Cape Verde), and connecting to his religious faith.
Change also meant realizing he had potential, he said, “but before I could use that potential I had to acquire knowledge.”
And so Pereira read and took his education seriously. And from his reading came inspiration and the realization that “I was at a crossroads. I could keep on living the life I was living, or I could face the music and change.”
Pereira faced the music, and boy did he change: He went from being a teen in trouble to a young adult who graduated this spring from Westfield State University.
He was able to turn his life around through the mentoring and support he received from adults who cared.
“Kids get labeled, especially kids who are from a minority community,” he said. “There are a lot of diamonds in the rough out there who just need some support so that they can become successful, too. I was lucky: I got the support that I needed.”
People who knew that deep down, Pereira, like most if not all of his peers, had the potential to do right if just given the chance.
Pereira thrived at college, and was drawn to study social structures.
“I loved learning about red-lining and segregation, and how we can build a community that brings people together instead of pulling them apart.”
After graduation, Pereira’s interest in advocacy and social justice led him to MassBike, where he’s working on programs to increase bicycle use, infrastructure, and access in urban communities.
“I know a lot of people perceive biking as a white person’s activity, but it’s not. Biking is a way to experience your community and bring people together,” he said.
Pereira, now 21, knows that people are somewhat skeptical about bicycles, but their doubts do not deter him. After all, he’s overcome far tougher odds.
“And to those skeptics I’d say, take a deep breath, open your eyes, and look at the possibilities that can happen with bikes,” he said.
“When I was in lockup I could never have imagined that this is where I would end up. But when I got out, I knew I had a job to do. I had to accomplish something, and that meant helping people.”
Which is what Pereira is doing, one bike at a time.