Creative approach yields hip helmets

Tragedy inspires student's emphasis on cycling safety

Emerson student Zack Smith launched a nonprofit that provides free helmets after a friend died in a bicycling accident. Emerson student Zack Smith launched a nonprofit that provides free helmets after a friend died in a bicycling accident. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Mary Ann Georgantopoulos
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2007

Whether helmets are too expensive or not hip enough isn't the issue: On the streets of Allston, it's obvious helmets aren't on the heads of every bicyclist.

Zack Smith, 22, is tired of the excuses.

Smith, devastated by the death of a friend in a bicycle accident in May, fashioned a nonprofit organization called Helping Everyone Live Longer, or HELL, that is committed to providing a free bike helmet to anyone who wants one.

"The helmets are 100 percent free. So many people make up the excuse of why they don't wear a helmet, like, 'Oh, I can't afford it right now,' " said Smith, a student at Emerson College. "I want to do away with that as an excuse. We exist to protect bicyclists, as well as to break down the barriers between safety and fashion, the latter of which too often wins out."

To add to the cool factor, with a $50 donation, Smith provides customized helmets with anything from classic punk album covers to stencils of dogs. "So many kids ride without helmets because they want to look cool," he said. "So I'm trying to balance that. I'm trying to make helmets look hip so people will be duped into wearing them."

A bicycle helmet can cost from $60 to $200, Smith said.

When the project began, Smith's friend, Kerry Simon, who owns a skate shop in Harvard Square, provided the helmets at a discount price. Now that HELL has grown and become an official nonprofit organization, Smith buys the helmets from Eastern Skateboard Supply at a wholesale price of $18.

Since May, Smith says, he has put helmets on the heads of approximately 150 people.

To generate the money to buy and ship helmets, Smith has set up donation boxes around Boston, which add as much as a few hundred dollars every few weeks. "I'd go and ask to set up a donation jar at any place that seemed remotely biker-friendly," Smith said.

Alex Pepper, 22, a close friend of Smith's, works at Herrell's Renaissance Cafe in Allston, where a donation jar is set. While the donations may seem sporadic, Pepper said, he will always find a couple of dollars at the end of the day.

Pepper helps Smith in a variety of ways. A few days ago, "I got off work and we had to box up tons of helmets and write out the addresses," Pepper said.

Messages for helmets usually reach Smith via e-mail or MySpace. Smith has spread the word mainly through friends, fliers, and word of mouth. Even though requests for specifications such as color can be made, Smith cannot guarantee all wishes will be met.

Smith does most of his work out of his Allston apartment, where his room and hallways are "up to the ceiling" with helmets. "I get home from school, then work and I sit up all night replying to e-mails and MySpace messages," said Smith, who estimated he gets a couple of dozen messages a day.

Smith has enjoyed the positive feedback. "We've had a couple of people get in accidents, hit their heads, and write to us about how they were wearing a HELL helmet," Smith said.

Proof that Smith is helping people live longer also came through his friend, Ariel Hertzoss.

Hertzoss visited Smith and Pepper at the AltWheels Alternative Transportation and Energy Festival, where they took orders for helmets. When Hertzoss left, Smith gave her a helmet because she didn't have one.

Thirty minutes later, Hertzoss called Smith to tell him she had been sideswiped off the road by a bus.

It was a tragedy in May that led to the project. Smith's friend, Kelly Wallace, 23, was struck and killed by a car near Smith's apartment in Allston. A month before, an acquaintance of Smith's, Gordon Riker, 22, was struck and killed by a car while on his bicycle on Huntington Avenue.

Smith has shipped as far east as the United Kingdom and as far south as Florida. If the drop-off is in the neighborhood, Smith will hop on his bike and deliver it himself.

Smith and Pepper have visions of a long life for HELL.

"Once we get a hang of what we're doing, I'd like to see HELL spread throughout the country," Pepper said. "I would love to see a chapter of HELL in every city."

For now, though, the two men are focused on maintaining the organization locally.

"I want it to be sustainable, and I'm afraid of overextending my reach and letting it fall into deterioration if I don't take control of it," Smith said. "Eventually, I want to expand and make it big, but it needs to have a very strong foundation."

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