In 1985, Samuel Cohen arrived to Gainesville addicted to heroin.
Cohen has struggled with drug addiction for 47 years.
A Vietnam War veteran, Cohen joined the army as a teenager in 1969. Returning in 1971, Cohen found little support for veterans, especially those suffering from trauma.
He instead turned to drugs to cope.
“I went into service when I was 17 – barely 17 – and I should have been in high school, but I wound up in the army for financial reasons trying to support my family,” Cohen said. “When I came back to the States, I was addicted to heroin, and there were no treatment for vets then. As a matter of fact, there was no treatment for people suffering from drug addiction, period.”
The Jacksonville native made his way down to Gainesville in 1985, where he first entered a 28-day VA recovery program.
“I had maybe two [or] three months of clean time,” Cohen said, “But I’m up and down from my recovery since.”
Since his first recovery program, Cohen has spent several years battling his addiction at Gainesville’s HONOR Center for Veterans, 1604 SE 3rd Ave. Today, Cohen is on the road to recovery with support from programs offered by Gainesville’s VA system.
One of these programs, Bikes 4 Vets, has provided over 500 bicycles to veterans as a mode of transportation and for recreational purposes. The program has enabled veterans to be independent and allows participants the opportunity to get back on their feet. Bikes 4 Vets has partnered with the HONOR Center to connect residents with resources in the Gainesville community.
“This is the first treatment facility that offered any type of real recreational type rehabilitation,” Cohen said. “I really appreciate the program Bikes 4 Vets. I think it’s the most stimulating part of being here. It really is.”
When Diann Dimitri, the founder, speaks about Bikes 4 Vets, her eyes wander across her garage’s walls, which are covered from floor to ceiling with bike parts – tires, rims, handlebars, brakes. Her wardrobe consists exclusively of workout clothes, complete with an iconic visor. The back of her van is covered in cycling stickers promoting the Gainesville Cycling Club (GCC), and the trunk door lifts to reveal a slew of bicycles already stashed and ready to be delivered.
About eight years ago, Dimitri went with some of her fellow GCC members to a breakfast for the homeless at Bo Diddley Plaza. There, they provided minor bicycle services to bike owners, such as filling tires with air and handing out free locks. A veteran, who at the time lived in the HONOR Center, approached Dimitri and told her he did not have a bike.
“It just started with him,”Dimitri said. “It just started with giving him a bike.”
Dimitri proceeded to contact the center, and along with staff members, developed an initiative to provide veterans with bicycles.
Working closely with the HONOR Center for Veterans and collaborating with local businesses like Gator Cycle, The Freewheel Project, and Goodbike Trailside, Bikes 4 Vets accommodates veterans with repairs for their bikes when needed, teaches basic but necessary bike knowledge, and provides veterans with maps of trails and bike paths around the city.
After living at the center for 30 days and receiving approval from their caseworkers, veterans can fill out a form explaining their needs for a bike, usually for transportation and recreational purposes. Once approved, veterans can then meet with Dimitri and other Bikes 4 Vets volunteers to receive a bike at their weekly meet-ups every Friday in the facility’s parking lot. However, interested veterans do not have to live at the center to be eligible for Bikes 4 Vets.
“The volunteers are a lifeblood of our program, so I can’t say enough how lucky we are to have this program here,” Lisa Alcala, the HONOR Center’s domiciliary chief, said. “There are so many benefits to it. It’s almost hard to pinpoint it, but if you’re out here, you can feel the vibe.”
Many of those who participate in the Bikes 4 Vets program use their bikes to travel to rehabilitation meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, or for buying necessities like groceries, Dimitri said.
“Many of the veterans don’t have [a] drivers license,” said Patrick Patterson, a recreation therapist at the center. “If they have a bicycle that’s available to them, then it gives them a little normalcy to their life and day.”
Two years ago, Peter Klavuhn lived at the HONOR Center, where he encountered Bikes 4 Vets. Now, Klavuhn is one of Bike 4 Vet’s repairmen. Suffering from mental illness, Klavuhn relies on Bikes 4 Vets for stability to escape from his anxiety.
“When I got to Gainesville, my whole life turned around. The Gainesville VA system is marvelous and they have helped me out immensely,” Klavuhn said. “It’s wonderful because I’m pretty good at fixing things, and volunteering for Bikes 4 Vets gives me the opportunity to use my skills.”
Additionally, biking has proven to help veterans’ health both physically and mentally.
“For some people, riding a bike is just pure joy,” Chandler Otis, a Bikes 4 Vet’s repairman said. “The bikes benefited [veterans] by sort of being a therapeutic device whether it’s for cardiovascular reasons, physical disabilities or just for exercise.”
Many veterans have also found solace in biking on one of Gainesville’s scenic paths, and some even team up for group rides throughout Gainesville’s bike paths.
As a city with multiple bike trails, including the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, which is less than a five-minute walk from the HONOR Center, Gainesville is a centralized location for someone that travels on a bike.
“A bicycle helps with getting around. It makes a world a difference,” Klavuhn said. “Sometimes I just want to get out and go.”
The program also advocates bike safety, and it provides vets with a lock and a light for $20. However, if they are unable to afford this, Dimitri waves the cost.
“Ms. Diann, she worked with me since I had no income,” Jerry Lee Powell, a veteran, said. “She got me a nice bicycle, lock and everything.”
Bikes 4 Vets receives bikes and bike parts from the City of Gainesville, and local businesses provide discounts on bike pieces. The program also receives bikes by donation from members of the community. However, many of the bikes need to be repaired before being gifted, and – as over 100 veterans are waiting to receive a bike – the program is currently working to meet demand despite a shortage of repairmen. There is also a need for adult tricycles.
“It’s given me a sense of freedom. It’s given me the opportunity to learn the city and enjoy myself at the same time,” Cohen said. “I’m a much better person after having come here, and with my addiction, it’s been a good experience. I think that I can say that I’ll make it from here.”
To donate to Bikes 4 Vets, or for more information about the program, individuals can contact Diann Dimitri at firstname.lastname@example.org.