Columbia man helps veterans get back on their feet

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COLUMBIA - A formerly homeless veteran is helping other vets expand their horizons by cycling.

Tyler Kempker leads a group of veterans at the Bike to the Future shop who fix bikes to give away.

"We have a group of guys that primarily have problems. That’s why they’re going to something like this," Kempker said. "So it’s more like a social hour even though we get bikes worked on. But, just having somewhere to go instead of being out in the cold or out doing stuff you shouldn’t be doing, you know it helps." 

Kempker's motivation stems from his own experiences. He served in the U.S. Army for six years, and became homeless, in part, because of drugs and legal problems.

“I was homeless here in Columbia for a while and I lived on a bike, and having some place that gives people a bike, I know it might not sound like much if you have a car and you’re used to having a car, a bike’s a big deal,” he said.

Kempker said he could go to places faster with a bike. He and his friends became avid cyclists.

“I started riding a bike out of necessity to get around town because I didn’t have a vehicle and then it turned into me liking it a lot and now we go mountain biking, we travel all over," Kempker said. "We went to Arkansas a while back and Columbia has pretty decent trails around here."

The Bike to the Future program started in 2016.

“This was just a thought in one man’s head and here two years later we have distributed over 300 bikes,” Bike to the Future shop manager Sid Popejoy said.

With a twenty percent discount from Academy Sports and Outdoors, brand new bikes were given to veterans on Tuesday at Welcome Home, a Columbia community for veterans.

Academy Sports store director Mark Francis said he was happy to help in any way he could.

“Most of our customers are using the bikes for recreation, but, in this case, we were happy to assist them to serve veterans and help them with their transportation needs,” he said.

Welcome Home partnered with the Elks Lodge to provide the bicycles through a grant specifically for veterans called the Freedom Grant.

Elks Lodge volunteer Maureen Kokoska said, “I’m very fortunate in life, so if I can give to others it’s just extraordinary."

Welcome Home case manager Becky Whitworth works with veterans in the community on a daily basis.

“It’s just been a really amazing experience," she said.

Welcome Home's goal is to help clients find permanent housing, she said. That helps the veterans gain independence.

"Having transportation to be able to get to their appointments, to get to a job, to go shopping, it’s just been really important for them,” Whitworth said.

Popejoy said the bicycles fulfill a greater need in the community for veterans.

"Most of them do not have good transportation. If they have to walk to work and it takes them an hour and a half, that could be a problem, or if they’re trying to get to a job interview and it takes them forever to walk there," Popejoy said. "If they can get on a bicycle and it takes maybe 15 minutes, it’s really life changing."

Now, riding on a $3,000 bike, Kempker’s life has taken a different turn.

“Giving back is a big deal to me now because I took so much away from my community doing things I wasn’t supposed to be doing," he said. "So coming here everyday and being trusted with a group of people and leading them to do things, it’s kind of a big deal.”