I am sat in the living room of David Matyjas, a Polish born self-confessed former ‘petrol head’ who is telling me how a personal tragedy led to him having what can only be described as an epiphany.
“I basically cycled into a brick wall at about 30mph without a helmet on,” says the 33-year-old, who lives with his wife Tara, 30, and son Luka, seven, in Kirkstall.
“I don’t remember how I came to do it and I don’t remember anything immediately after it, so I have no ideas how it happened. There was only one witness and they were in an office block high up and just said they saw me go into the wall.”
The accident, which happened in Bristol in 2011, left him unable to walk and with a brain injury - it’s fair to say, changed his life forever.
Amongst other things, David had to learn to walk again and although to look at him you would not know he had been through such an ordeal, he says he is still receiving physiotherapy as a result of the accident.
During his time in Bristol, he was part of a social project called BS3 which brought together all kinds of different businesses but he worked repairing bicycles.
Shortly after he ended up leaving Bristol to move to a small village outside Sheffield and taking a job repairing bicycles
David took up the story: “I used to be a real petrol head and be into modifying cars, I was constantly around cars but then I got caught speeding and was banned for 56 days. I had to go to work at the same time, so I borrowed my then girlfriend’s bike for a couple of days a week and do you know what, I loved it.
“I couldn’t remember the last time I had so much fun, it brought back my childhood. I got used to the bike and liked it and I didn’t bother going back to the car.
“So I started to learn about the basics of how to repair and maintain a bike, I’ve always had a mechanical mind and I became quite involved in it.
“It was two or three years ago, I was part of a project in Bristol based in a derelict college but the project ran out of steam. Then, I had a big accident.”
The aforementioned accident changed his life forever.
“I had a series of brain injuries and basically had to learn to walk again, for a while I was on the edge of dying.
“So, when I did start to recover, I started to appreciate things a little more and I started to think about how I could help other people.
“It was also an emotional trip because shortly after the accident was the first time in my life I told my brother-in-law I loved him.
“It was then I started thinking about setting some kind of bike project up on my own. I moved to a small village called Renishaw near Sheffield and worked about four hours a week repairing bikes and showing kids how to fix them, then I bought some of my own tools.
“I lost that job there and moved to Leeds and it was into an area where there were lots of kids. Some had bikes but I noticed they were riding them about often unsafely, whereas a lot of them just didn’t have bikes at all.
“I was used to seeing people throw bikes away simply because they had something minor wrong with them like the brake cable was broken and I thought, why not fix these bikes up, make them safe and given them away for free?
“The worst one I ever came across was a bike with a flat tyre and when I picked it up there was a small bag under the saddle and guess what I found in the bag? ... A puncture repair kit. Part of this is also about making less rubbish and re-using the things people throw away, as well as giving kids life skills.”
His idea is already in motion and last month he handed over about a dozen bicycles to children living on the next street. So far, the project has given away about 30 bicycles and the current turn-over is about a dozen a week.
“They called me the all-year Santa. When we gave one of the bikes out, the girl we gave it to asked why she was getting a bike when it wasn’t Christmas.
“The effect has been amazing because these kids who were just hanging around before with not much to do are now all going off together on bike rides into the woods and down the canal and all over the place.
“There was even one little girl who was trying to ride her bike and do you know what, all the other kids on the estate went to help her and now she can ride it.
“Three of the other kids who used to get the bus now go on their bikes.”
David gets donations from everywhere but he wants more - so far, he’s relied on word of mouth and an agreement with a local recycling plant to pick up unwanted bicycles.
His house has become a mecca for children from the surrounding estate.
Tara said: “We can sometimes have up to 30 kids round here into the evening. They all come here and because I’m cooking tea for Luka and us, they all end up having some too. I did chicken curry one night and there were like three of them sat on the steps all tucking in.
“We get knocks on the door at all hours, we had one kid come round at about 10 o’ clock at night saying he’d got a flat tyre. I told him he’d have to come back in the morning. The other week, we had three girls turn up in their pyjamas on Sunday morning.”
The couple have also managed to bag other free items through the Leeds Freegle web group and, indeed, during the interview, Tara takes a call from someone offering them a 30ft by 10ft gazeebo, which is now installed in their back garden over the decking, which they also bagged for free.
David went on: “I really believe in the project, it’s not just about bikes, it has a kind of educational impact because when the kids come here, I don’t just do the repairs for them, I show them how to do it themselves, so the next time their break cable snaps, they know what to do and they don’t call it a break ‘thingie’ or a barrel ‘thingie’, they call it a break cable and a barrel adjuster. And you can see them taking an interest in it and wanting to learn.
“We also have some ground rules, which involve no swearing, no bullying and no putting their hands down their trousers...” (apparently, something of a trend amongst some young people).
“It also gives the kids something else to do and helps keep them out of trouble. I’d love for the Bike College to grow into something like a social enterprise project and maybe for us to have a cafe, it’s part of the dream. Right now I’m just a bike man in a back garden but we’re trying to grow it.”
Certainly, judging by the enthusiasm of the children who turn up to our photoshoot at 10am on a Sunday, he’s hit the nail on the head in terms of what appeals to pre-teen youngsters.
Ten children aged between six and 12 turned up on their new bikes, all courtesy of David and Tara’s Bike College.
One of the children, aged 12, said: “We go for rides all over, we’ve made a trail in the woods and we play out on them. It was good to get a new bike.”
Contact David or Tara on: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07758 861 663.