X Press “On the Mountain and Off the Street”

December 01, 2008

On the mountain and off the streets
by Syed AliAssociate Editor
DECEMBER 12, 2008 8:52 AM

9:07 a.m.– Things are a little hectic this morning, as both ride leaders and volunteers are packing up for today’s ride, and although there are only half a dozen people at the shop, it’s a madhouse. In the forefront, someone’s lumbering around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, collecting all of the helmets off of the floor. Inside the shop, the brakes and gears are being checked on to ensure that no complications arise during the ride. In the lot, all of the mountain bikes, about thirty in total, are being stuffed into the van like a pack of sardines. While scrounging around to make sure that every little detail has been checked and double-checked, the entire gang piles up into their cars to head over to China Camp State Park. When preparing for a bike run, this is a typical morning for Trips For Kids.

Started in 1988, Trips For Kids is a non-profit organization that takes disadvantaged middle and high school youth on mountain bike rides and provides them with job training by teaching them how to not only repair bikes, but to be able to make their own mountain bikes from scratch.

Founded and created by Marilyn Price, Trips For Kids has a total of sixty-five chapters spreading across the United States, with some in Canada and even an international chapter in Israel. Each chapter is unique in how they run their own program and the types of rides they take their kids on. However, the Marin chapter, located in downtown San Rafael, was the inaugural chapter and went on its first bike run in 1989, and has been serving the nearby community ever since.

“I was a housewife and a mom, and I always wanted to be a social worker, but I never went to graduate school,” says Price, who moved to the Bay Area from St. Louis forty-two years ago. “I’ve loved bicycles all my life and I’ve been interested in our environmental problems since the early seventies. I was just on my mountain bike on Mount Tamalpais one day, and I just looked out and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to bring some of the kids from the inner city out here?’”

Trips For Kids works with youth agencies, which in turn try and sign up kids for rides. The only requirement is that the kids are between the ages of ten and seventeen, and that they are the type of kids who could not partake in an activity like this without the aid of the program.

10:38 a.m.– After making the drive over to the trail, Tim Long, one of the ride leaders, meets up in the back lot of China Camp State Park with the teenagers from the Community Youth Center (CYC), an after-school program that provides services for Chinese youth. CYC was one of the very first agencies that Trips For Kids took out on a run. Long and the other volunteers start to form an assembly line once again, helping out the five bewildered kids who look like they have no clue as to what they’re getting themselves into. First, each kid is given a helmet that has their name taped on the front and back. Next, each one is given a bike that fits their body type, and then given a quick tutorial on changing gears. These kids in particular aren’t facing any economic problems; however, they are recent immigrants from China. Johnny Yu, a member of CYC who’s going on his very first mountain bike ride, recently came to the U.S. by political asylum. But he’s not letting any of that deter him. Although the ride leaders and volunteers are worried—not only because of the language barrier, but also because it’s the first time some of these kids have ever gone mountain biking—they all soon realize that they have nothing to worry about, as the kids are looking less like novices and more like professionals. (Though we’ll see how long the smiles last after the ten-mile ride.)

But how could a program like this become so huge and successful, especially when it was created by someone with no professional experience within the field?

“I’m not a planner. I’ve never planned to do this. I’ve never developed a business plan. I kind of seize the opportunities as they come along,” says Price. “We got our first article in a national bicycling publication—Bicycle Magazine—and I started to get inquiries from people around the country. By then, I got a lot more inquiries because we were getting a lot more coverage. We went fully national in 1999, and we have been signing up usually about ten chapters per year. I attribute it to kids and bicycling. Bicycling is popular with kids, but it’s popular with adults too. There are people like myself who have loved bicycling, they want to volunteer and they want to share their love for bicycling with others. We have never, ever had trouble filling volunteers here. Every week, I’m getting requests to sign up for a program.”

For the first ten years, Trips For Kids was run out of Price’s home. Not only were meetings held there, but it’s also where all of the mountain bikes were stored. Soon, she opened the Trips For Kids office in San Rafael, which also serves as a bicycle thrift shop that funds over 50 percent of the program. People from all over the Bay Area, even honorary board members Robin Williams and Carlos Santana, have donated to the program, as well bringing in used parts, clothes and accessories that they no longer use.

“It performs that environmental notion of giving these items a second life,” says Price. “Bicycles that are sitting in people’s garages that they don’t know what to do with, they might end up throwing them away. They could give them to us. We refurbish them and then we sell them.”

12:44 p.m.– The first half is tough for some of the kids. Not only are some not even in biking attire, wearing baggy jeans, sneakers and several layers, but many are also frantic for air during the ride, as if they hadn’t done anything remotely physically demanding for a while. Although their bodies are telling them to quit, their inner will, and most importantly, their friends, are pushing them to continue moving forward. After a couple of bumps, several cuts, and one ugly fall, the kids from CYC and volunteers rest at a picnic area at the end of the trail, where they can use the bathroom, eat their lunch, or simply relax. Yet oddly enough, the CYC guys’ initial reaction is to pick up a bunch of smooth rocks and start skipping them at a nearby lake, or venture further down to goof off around the pier. Maybe the adrenaline has yet to stop, but for these guys, they’re just basking in the moment.

“We get a lot of kids who’ve never been over the Golden Gate Bridge, and we get a lot of kids who’ve never been out in the country like this,” says Long. “For some of the kids, it’s a real challenge; for some of the kids, they’re super tough. Some of the kids hate it in the beginning for its toughness, but then they all like it in the end. They all feel a sense of accomplishment.”

Trips For Kids goes on roughly five rides a week, and has served up to three hundred organizations since they started. While the main office is where Price works, planning and organizing rides, Re-Cyclery, where Long works, is where the organization does job training, bike repair and maintenance.

Re-Cyclery, which opened in 1994, is a warehouse that’s ten minutes from the Trips For Kids office. It doubles as sort of an after school program for the neighborhood kids. There’s no specific scheduled time, so the kids are free to come and go as they please. On a regular day, as many as ten to fifteen kids drop by to help, or simply hang out.

“There’s a head mechanic who organizes the program, and he will start by giving the kids simple jobs, like changing a bike tube or tire,” says Long. “And they work their way up to doing the more complicated things. Usually, the kids who’ve been in the program for a year or two will already be able to go through all of the different types of bikes that we encounter. The kids from low-income neighborhoods learn to build bikes and learn at the shop that services that community. These kids are just flirting around the neighborhoods and looking for something to do.”

Although the kids who help out at Re-Cyclery don’t get paid, there is the earn-a-bike program, which allows them to earn points that they can use towards parts and accessories for their own bikes, or if they save enough points, an actual mountain bike. However, when they reach the age of fourteen, they can in fact be hired by the organization and get paid for the work that they are doing.

“It sounds like a Cinderella story, but the organization helped me stay out of trouble,” says Zander Bonifacio, who was in the program for a while and recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara. “I was doing a lot of bad things: stealing, fighting, cutting class, hanging with gangs. Trips For Kids was near by my house, and I decided to check it out one day that I had cut school, which ironically, was probably the best decision I ever made. The program helped me become physically fit, socially comfortable and mentally tough. It really boosted my self-esteem and made me realize that I do have a choice in life.”

Julian Tan, a member of CYC who was on his second mountain bike ride, feels that organizations like Trips For Kids help recent immigrants to the United States meet new friends and transition into American culture. “Because of the language barrier, [the kids in CYC] don’t really get to interact with other people, but mountain biking allows for it to happen,” says Tan.

For the Marin chapter, they have two destination options—Tennessee Valley or China Camp State Park—depending on the ability of the kids. The trails vary—some are 80 percent flat, while others have steep hills and sharp, windy paths. The groups usually consist of ten to fifteen people, as well as a handful of volunteers and employees who lead the way, provide information and tips, and, most importantly, keeping a watchful eye. Regardless, everyone has a great time.

“We’re strangers to them, for the most part,” says Price of the kids that are going on their very first mountain bike ride. “They come in and they’re like, ‘Who are these people?’ And that was another interesting phenomenon. You would meet these kids, particularly if they were older, and they come out of the van. You get them suited, and about twenty minutes into the ride, they’re completely into it, and that’s the magic of the bike. It’s like you see the barrier start to melt. And they’re just having a great time. The kids aren’t learning to, but they’re being kids again.”

2:43 p.m.– Victory at last. As the group makes its way to the back lot, the area where the journey began mere hours ago, the kids from CYC take turns yelling or popping wheelies. The exhausted few, however, dash straight to the water fountain, and rather than taking a few sips of water, they’re taking the closet thing they can to a shower from the small faucet. As everyone takes off their gear and puts their bikes away one by one, the gang hovers around a sitting area and reminisces about the ride. And although it’s getting colder and it’s almost time to head back home, it seems like no one wants to leave. Who can blame them? No one knew that something as simple as mountain biking would help them make new friends and accomplish a goal. For these guys, it’s only the start.

“The environmental message that we try to convey is that our world has problems, environmentally,” says Price. “And isn’t this a beautiful place that we’ve come to? And what can you do in your life when you go home to keep this place beautiful and also to make the city that you live beautiful too. They feel that maybe, I can make a difference. I want to keep doing it until I can’t anymore, which I hope will even be a long time from now. I just love it, I’ve learned so much. It’s always nice and a good feeling to hear the stories from the kids after the rides and knowing that they’re getting something out of it.”

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