Bike by bike, firefighter leaves legacy of generosity upon retirement

CHICAGO -- After 27 years on the job, a Chicago firefighter is hanging up his gear and retiring. While his daily duties may have stopped, Kirkland Flowers’s work at the station is far from over.

When Kirkland saw that kids near the firehouse living in underserved Chicago neighborhoods were skipping school, he tried to come up with a way to get them back in class.

He used love, humor and a bike wrench.

Kirkland started the bike program at the station near 39th and Wabash when he noticed more kids hanging out at the firehouse instead of school.

It's called the FITCH program and stands for Firefighters/paramedics In The Community Helping.

He told the kids, “Bring your report card to the firehouse and we will look at it. If it’s got good grades, perfect attendance, you'll get a bicycle."

It was a great idea with one very big problem.

"Some of the guys are like, ‘Where you going get some bikes? We have no bikes.’"

But once the word got out, the bikes surfaced from all sorts of places; new bikes, old ones and refurbished. They came in all colors and sizes.

The kids raced to the Engine 16 station with their report cards back when attendance in the nearby housing projects was hovering at a dismal 20%, Kirkland says.

"Within eight months, attendance went up about 45%. Within a year it went up to 92%,” he says.

That was in just one school 25 years ago.

So Kirkland took the FITCH program to another low income neighborhood school. Then another and another. Since then, the station has given out hundreds of thousands of bikes. Time Magazine wrote about Kirkland 20 years ago. He is so beloved by the kids he caters to, the writer referred to him as the “Pied Piper.”

The FITCH program was more important than ever back when the Chicago projects that Engine 16 was serving were still standing. They included the Robert

Taylor homes, Ida B. Wells and others. Kirkland says firefighters were working hard to respond to the needs of 11,000 people in just a few blocks back then. And kids, often left to their own devices.

He says the bike program works because these kids have to earn their wheels by staying in school.

“(Back then) a bike was like gold. If you had a bike, you was something," he says.

Just last month, the station gave away 70 bikes to 4th-8th graders living in the toughest neighborhoods on the West Side.

In 2010, Kirkland travelled to Haiti after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the impoverished nation. He and six other firefighters loaded up three ambulances, drove to Miami and put those trucks on a ferry. The ambulances were filled with medical supplies and bikes.

"There in Haiti, a bike was gold, truly," he says.

Last month 63-year-old Kirkland retired from the department. He still comes into the station to tinker with his tools and tune up a few two-wheelers.

Kirkland believes bikes are one way to save kids from the trouble that bubbles up on dangerous city blocks right outside the firehouse doors.

Now in his retirement, his reward is on the face of every child who rides off on their new bike.

"If you could see their face when they walk out of here with their bike … it's like sunshine. You can't explain it. You have to be here to see it."

Kirkland and the folks at Engine 16 will rent a bike to a kid if they have one available for 25-cents a day. When they return it, those kids get their quarter back.

Kirkland is ready to pass the torch and is searching for someone to take over the bike program he has nurtured and grown over the years.