Switchin’ Gears in Wilmington Gives Beyond the Spoke
Besides providing bicycles for people in need, the nonprofit Switchin’ Gears in Wilmington creates friendships and provides hope.
For Dusty Casteen, the journey to where he is today was a long one. After a decade-long battle with drug addiction, a 2,200-mile thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail and a few steps into The Anchor church in Wilmington, he found a simple life with his wife and beautiful 9-year-old son and hundreds of old bikes and bike parts.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Matt McGraw
Casteen is co-founder and current director of Switchin’ Gears, a nonprofit that takes donated bikes and parts and creates functional bikes to give to the community, particularly to people in need or living in a low-income household. While Switchin’ Gears is Casteen’s life and passion today, bikes and helping others did not figure into his past. First, he had to learn some life lessons.
Originally from Wilmington, Casteen says he made some bad decisions during his high school years, when he began a battle with addiction and came close to death.
While his family grieved for him and many tried to help, ultimately Casteen made his own good decision and in his early 30s decided to wrestle his demons. He took off on the Appalachian Trail to figure out who he was and what he wanted to be. In the end, his hike gave him a new life with purpose.
“I would say that I learned more about myself that year than I had in the prior 32,” Casteen says.
While on the trail, Casteen met a stray dog, who is now his loyal companion and hangs out in the Switchin’ Gears shop. He also met Hunter Barnell, who currently lives in Georgia but who Casteen considers his closest companion. Not only did they survive the hike together, when they returned home, Casteen convinced Barnell to come live in Wilmington.
The two men shared a house near the corner of Dawson and Eighth streets where, to help their neighbors, they began fixing abandoned bikes and gifting them. More bikes and more people ended up coming until suddenly they looked around their living room and found it drowning in bikes and parts.
“We started fixing bikes out of the living room,” Casteen says. “We were sleeping in hammocks, with little furniture, but our house had about 50 to 70 bikes in it on any given day.”
It was around this time that Casteen, intrigued by placards around town, walked into a meeting of The Anchor church. Casteen found God when he was out on the Appalachian Trail and when he came to The Anchor he found God waiting for him again, calling him to duty.
As things came together, Switchin’ Gears began to emerge as a legitimate nonprofit. It was clear to Casteen and Barnell they were needed and it was time for a building and a bigger program.
Philip Chryst, pastor at The Anchor, was an immediate champion. He helped find space and when the building at 1202 Chestnut Street became available they found the money, started renovations and moved in — without any active fundraising.
“Dusty Casteen’s work has been riveting to watch,” Chryst says. “He has dedicated himself to the work God has called him to, while at the same time dedicated himself to the neighborhood. It has brought me great joy to see how the neighborhood has celebrated this ministry that is founded on bicycles. I am amazed that the corner of 12th and Chestnut has turned into a corner that is filled with laughter and good works.”
Casteen’s personal history makes him infinitely capable of looking at recovering addicts, broken souls and people in need and leaning over to hold their hands with empathy. The bikes are simply how he gets to meet them.
Right now the Switchin’ Gears building is full of kittens (Casteen adopted a stray cat who he later learned was pregnant), grease, sweat, board games, bikes, two dogs and a place for interns to live if they are in need. The door is always open, and while people may walk in looking specifically for a bike, many more come in looking for fellowship and acceptance. A bike may give a person a way to keep a job, but Casteen feels the real power of what he does is show people that someone believes in them, no matter where they are on their own personal journey.
“I don’t think it’s our job to dictate how somebody gets help or where they get help,” Casteen says. “It’s our job to just love people through wherever they are. Whether they make good decisions or bad decisions, we are going to be here to love them for who they are.”
He continues: “I think when somebody realizes that, ‘Ok, this person is going to love me, they are going to help me by loving me unconditionally,’ they start to think, ‘I want to do that to myself. I want to love myself unconditionally.’ It gives them a leg up to start to say, ‘I really don’t want this life for myself.’”
Over the past year, Casteen has changed the model of Switchin’ Gears. While originally they would give bikes, no questions asked, he and Barnell (who is still actively involved) decided to change the program slightly. They now offer three options for those interested in a bike to “earn” one: 1) pay $15 to $20; 2) spend 3 to 5 service hours in the community; or 3) pick out the pieces and build their own, learning from Casteen.
Casteen admits this doesn’t apply to children. “Kids have my heart,” he says. “Because they didn’t have a choice. For them, bikes are about freedom and every kid deserves a chance to own one. I want to help break the cycle of poverty if I can.”
Casteen is a big believer in empowerment. He takes on interns who show themselves to be talented and will help them get on their feet. Every day he is in the shop, neighbors and people he has served stop in. They talk, read the Bible, share stories and even come back to help work on bikes for others.
“Switchin’ Gears has created a sense of community that is based on relationships,” Chryst shares. “People come seeking to find recreation, a way to work and relief from the burden of walk, but what they find is grace-filled relationships that are filled with compassion, joy and love. “
Switchin’ Gears has already given away more than 600 bikes, and Casteen doesn’t plan on quitting. While he knows he hasn’t reached the end of his journey he does know that where he is now is a wonderful stop.
“I always said to myself, ‘Why did God keep me alive? What is his plan?’ And I think this is it. We’re all broken. If you look at the Bible, God uses everyone. He uses the broken, the battered. Why am I any different?”