If you’re ever out on the trails at Oak Mountain State Park and pass by a cadre of children who have wrecked their bikes, don’t worry. Says the man who helped loan them those rides, everything is just fine.
“The kids enjoy going up hills and down hills, and some of them even like crashing,” Doug Brown said with a laugh. “We haven’t had anyone hurt themselves, and it’s like whoever crashes most wears it like a badge of honor.”
Brown is the founder of the Birmingham chapter of Trips for Kids, a nonprofit organization that loans bicycles and safety gear to children in the Birmingham area and teaches them to trail ride at Oak Mountain. The group, which held its first ride in June 2013, organized six events last year. Trips for Kids is gearing up for another season of outdoor fun scheduled to kick off in March.
Through the organization, students ages 10-15 from inner-city Birmingham are invited to join volunteers on the trails once a month as a reward for improving their attendance records and grades. They meet Brown and other volunteers at the park, where the first order of business is to complete a riding lesson in the field across from the Southern Trail head.
Volunteers, certified ride instructors who are mostly members of the Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers, first fit students with helmets and bikes. After that, the instructors teach children what gears are best for going up and down hills and — most important — how to use the brakes.
Brown said the organization took 65 students, some of whom had never been to a state park, on a ride around Oak Mountain’s Lake Trail last year.
“We want to show them exercising is fun and how nice it is to spend day outside,” Brown said. “Some of the kids start off a little scared and some might have a little bit of attitude, but the walls come down once they’re out on trails.”
Trips for Kids riding instructor Eddie Freyer, a Hoover resident, described it as a total shift. He said a group of boys showed up for the first ride in June acting “too cool for school.” Soon after, they were trail enthusiasts.
“I kept thinking it was a tough crowd,” Freyer said. “But we went through skills and got them out on trail, and at some point heard this giggling behind me — from all of them. I saw them completely change right there in front of me. They could not stop laughing and smiling the whole way.”
Brown, 59, a resident of Vestavia Hills, left the insurance business after 30 years because he wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. While volunteering at Red Mountain Park in 2012, he found an article about Trips for Kids and looked into starting a local chapter.
“With a rising obesity rate in Birmingham, it seemed like a good fit,” Brown said.
After receiving support from corporate sponsors and local bike shops, Brown reached out to the local cycling community through the volunteer organization Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers. Members of the group, including Freyer, agreed to hold riding lessons and lead trail rides twice a month. With that, all that remained was putting bicycles in children’s hands.
“I kept looking for a hurdle I couldn’t get over, and I never found one,” Brown said.
Brown said Trips for Kids is aiming to hold two rides per month beginning in March. He is also looking at ways to expand into Trips for Kids’ other component — a bike re-cyclery. The organization would accept donations of unwanted bicycles and use them to teach students how to “wrench,” or repair and refurbish them.
Brown also expects to see mountain biking expand in the community as a whole in 2014, and he hopes Trips for Kids will play a role. In 2012, Freyer was one of nine in the area certified by the International Mountain Biking Association and has since pursued the formation of competitive mountain biking leagues for Alabama high school students.
Brown said he believes that students who come to love the trails through Trips for Kids could then join Freyer’s competitive league.
“It gives them a new group to associate with,” Brown said. “When kids come off the trails, they’re jacked up. Ninety percent want to ride again. Hopefully this year we’ll have everything in place to help them do it.”
For more on Trips for Kids or to learn how you can help, call Brown at 908-0564 or visit: tripsforkidsbirmingham.org. For more on the potential of a competitive high school mountain biking association in Alabama, visit facebook.com/alabamamtb.