“How The Most Influential Children’s Cycling Charity Almost Never Got Started” by Joe Linsey in Bicycling Magazine

December 01, 2015

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The idea struck, fittingly, on a mountain bike ride.
In 1986, Marilyn Price was an enthusiast mountain biker, juggling a collection of paid gigs and volunteering in environmental advocacy and social work, like at Saint Anthony’s Dining Room, a San Francisco meal room for poor and homeless residents. On a mountain bike ride one day, those various interests suddenly collided at a trailside vista of the downtown skyline from Marin’s famous Mount Tamalpais, and sparked the idea that would become her life’s work.

“I was out on this ride on Mount Tam looking over the city and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to bring some of the kids from the dining room up on this mountain?’” she says. It couldn’t have happened at a more auspicious place, as Tam is considered one of the birthplaces of mountain biking.

Initially, she questioned whether it was even possible, and the idea might have ended there. But two weeks later, she read about a psychologist in Hollywood named Kevin Fox who ran a program that did exactly what she envisioned: It took disadvantaged kids Los Angeles on day-trip adventures locally. “I wrote to him, and he took the time to write back, for which I was forever grateful,” says Price of Fox’s reply, which encouraged her to try. “Those words made it happen.”

The program she started, Trips for Kids, would go on to become one of the most influential cycling charities in the country, with some 75 chapters across the US (and two international chapters).

At the end of the year, Price, now 74, will step away from the organization she founded 27 years ago and has directed ever since. TfK’s Director of Operations, Kim Baenisch, will step in as acting executive director. The change, Price says, will allow Trips for Kids to take necessary next steps, and give her time and space to do the kind of direct work she has always loved.

Often, a charity will a hit rocky patch when its founder outstrips his or her natural ability to lead and grow an organization. But Price is sharply observant and recognizes that, for all she’s done, it’s time for someone else to step in and take the charity into the future.

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“We need to modernize,” she says. “The way I’ve run it, it’s been very grassroots, less professional and kind of old fashioned. For the next push—and I look at the IMBA model and how they grew—we need someone else.”

But that simple, practical assessment belies the impressive journey Price has taken with TfK, particularly since at the beginning, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to do it. “The first few trips we took, we weren’t yet a non-profit,” she recalls (Trips for Kids incorporated in 1988). “I wanted to see: Do I like it, do the kids react well, and do the volunteers like it? We took them out to Point Reyes, and Point Reyes Bike Shop let us borrow bikes for the kids and we rode out to the seashore. The kids loved it. So did I, and if it hadn’t happened that way I might not have done it.”

Among the smart choices Price made that helped grow TfK was to open a cycling-specific thrift shop in 1994: the Re-Cyclery. “We ran it out of my home the first 10 years,” she says. At one point, she inherited a popular bike swap run by Hall of Fame racer and NORBA co-founder Jacquie Phelan, and used the opportunity to ask for donations. “Every room in the house was full of boxes of stuff,” Price recalls. “The yard was overrun with bikes.”

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Today, the Re-Cyclery occupies most of a house, located next to the 101 freeway in San Rafael, that Price purchased (in cash) for the purpose of being the organization’s headquarters and shop. It sells new and used bikes and gear, operates an earn-a-bike program for program participants, and funds some 60 percent of TfK’s operating budget. Today, five separate chapters operate their own thrift shops, and 17 operate earn-a-bike programs.

Industry support is key to the Re-Cyclery, and was to TfK from the start, Price says. “When I started this, there were not a lot of bike charities,” she says. “We were the anomaly. And one of my first thoughts was, ‘Now we have to find bikes for the kids to ride.’

“Dave Giroux with the Bicycle Trails Council (one of the oldest mountain bike advocacy groups in the country, in San Francisco’s East Bay), told me to go to Interbike.” Price did, but with low expectations. “I figured ‘Who’s going to pay attention to me?’ But the first four companies I visited all said yes, they could provide bikes.” Those initial donations became part of Trips for Kids’ pledge to provide every new chapter with five bikes at startup.

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While TfK came of age during the tensest times for mountain bike advocacy, in one of the signature flashpoints for the fight over trail access, Price says that the organization largely floated above controversy. The early trips were even operated partly under the Sierra Club’s old Inner City Outings program. But access was definitely on Price’s mind: “I wanted to ensure that we could continue riding on trails by showing people that we weren’t just recreating; we were being philanthropic, too.”

TfK’s mission, and Price’s disarming optimism and charm, drew many supporters and media coverage. In 1996, NBC Nightly News brought her to Telluride to ride with Norman Schwarzkopf, the general then famous for having directed Desert Storm a few years prior, for a segment called “Schwarzkopf’s America.”

Another time, Price was riding around Marin posting fliers when she ran into Robin Williams. He told her he’d seen her in Bicycling. “I am not a clever person, but I just looked at him and said, ‘You look quite familiar too’ and rode away,” she laughs. Williams later became a member of TfK’s honorary board, which itself reads like a Grammy winners’ list: Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, and several members of the Grateful Dead. And just earlier this year, Price and TfK were showcased as part of CNN’s “Everyday Heroes” series.

But perhaps the most heartfelt moments to Price are the quieter ones. Last week, she ran into one of the first Trips for Kids participants at a local store, who told her what a difference it had made in his development. She has pages and pages of letters from former participants with similar sentiments.

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Aside from the Re-Cyclery, perhaps the most consequential decision Price made was to restructure TfK in 1999 as a national body with a chapter model. And that choice is partly why Price elected to step aside.

“I had never been a professional person,” she says of her pre-TfK years. “I had to learn how to do everything, and to operate a non-profit, which is a lot like running a business. Every year, our finances have kept improving. But it was done in a homespun, grassroots way.”

Price says that to grow, the organization needs more formal organization and partnerships, with municipal parks departments, for example, and with other charities (she mentions the Boys and Girls Club of America as one good candidate). But for years, Price says, she’s put in 70- to 80-hour workweeks, and that’s a long pull at the front. She wants Trips for Kids to benefit from new ideas and new energy.

Don’t expect retirement to mean major lifestyle changes, though. Price may be a 74-year-old grandmother, but she’s a grandma who still rides 11 miles to the office. “Time off?” she says. “I’ve never really been that kind of person. But I do have grandkids I want to spend more time with, and I’d like to see my son, who works for a non-profit in Washington, DC.”

And she’s still passionately committed to cycling and environmentalism. “Spending what years I have left, and I assume that I have 15 good ones, which I attribute to bicycling, I anticipate I’ll be able to do this for some time. I’ll take some biking vacations, but I don’t know if I’ll be doing the Pearl Pass tour.

“I’ll probably do more of this volunteer stuff.”

Price is keenly aware of the role that serendipity played in Trips for Kids’ success. Had she not reorganized TfK around a chapter model, or had she not started the Re-Cyclery, or had she not gone to Interbike to get those first donated bikes, perhaps TfK would be a footnote in cycling advocacy. So she’s careful to credit, even praise, the many people who’ve been instrumental in her organization’s journey.

Which reminds her of one more quick story. Some years ago, she says, “we were at a fundraising event and the President of the Board of Directors turned to me and said, ‘You know, my son-in-law once did something a lot like this in Los Angeles.”

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