Partnerships, Purpose and Passion
by guest writer, Sarah Packard
Cycling has always been a part of Charise Stephens’ life. Growing up in rural Georgia, mastering a wheelie wasn’t just a cool thing to do -- it was required to fit in. To this day Charise proudly sports scabs on her knees, a visual representation of the freedom and joy she experienced riding with her friends as a child. As an adult, Charise was determined to provide the same experience to kids in her community, Macon, Georgia. And she couldn’t have picked a better spot. Macon has more than six miles of dedicated bike lanes and a number of trails, including Arrowhead Park, with great climbs, fast downhills, lake access and camping, the LH Thomson Trail, with log jumps, switchbacks and steep drops and the “Pig Trail,” an eight mile single track with planted pines and hardwood trees.
In 2019, Charise founded U Create Macon, a youth organization offering science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), art and outdoor activities. She found a home for the organization in an abandoned building, and recalling her own upbringing, initiated a cycling program right away. But there was just one problem -- they did not have an organized basic ride program or bicycle equipment to get started. A quick online search yielded Trips for Kids, and Charise knew her prayers had been answered.
“It all happened so fast,” recalls Charise. “I saw the building on a Monday, submitted the proposal for the building on a Wednesday and by Friday I had the key. I found Trips for Kids online and thought ‘this is too good to be true’ -- a national network of like minded people who also want to get kids connected to riding bicycles. Everything was coming together.”
Charise visited the nearby Trips for Kids chapter in Fulton County and from that moment on, felt like a member of the Trips for Kids family. She began networking with a number of chapter leaders and leveraged the Trips for Kids national network to procure bikes for her kids.
Over the next year, Charise would build out the Middle, Georgia Trips for Kids chapter, serving the seven counties surrounding Macon. The chapter now offers a clubhouse, with an in-house bike shop and training facility, and anything the participating kids might need, from bike helmets to a food pantry to a closet full of tennis shoes. They also offer a variety of programs, including general rides and more structured events for the kids to learn riding techniques and safety.
Through it all, Charise and her team emphasize leadership, teamwork and most important, equality. “Our participants come from many different backgrounds, but you’d never know it,” said Charise. “They love each other with no regard for skin color or who has money. Under normal conditions, these kids would have never met, but with Trips for Kids, they form a special bond. It’s really heartwarming.” In the theme of equality, Charise says the chapter is reaching out to more girls and female coaches and has adjusted their mantra from “get more kids on bikes” to “get more girls on bikes.” And with the addition of a bilingual coach, the chapter is now attracting more Spanish-speaking participants.
While Charise and team have kept operations running despite COVID-19, their day-to-day is very different. In spring of 2020, the chapter formed a partnership with sanitizing company Shine On and partnered with Macon- Bibb County for personal protective equipment, masks and thermometers. Upon arrival, participants wash their hands and have their temperatures taken. Most programming is done outside, and the children are socially distanced. Despite having to adapt to these extra measures, Charise calls this past year “a blessing” and credits the program with helping to maintain the childrens’ well-being during the pandemic. “I truly believe that biking has made all the difference for these kids,” Charise said. “It gives them a release and an outlet, which makes it easier for them to cope with whatever the world throws at them.”
And the kids aren’t the only ones benefiting. Charise says Trips for Kids, and more specifically the kids she’s met, have transformed her life. “When I’m having a bad day and I see our kids on their bikes, the wonderment in their eyes puts everything in perspective,” says Charise. “Being a chapter leader is a busy job, but the kids remind me how important it is to literally stop and smell the roses.” In addition to the kids, Charise says the other chapter leaders have made the experience even more meaningful. She recommends that anyone thinking of starting their own chapter leverage the resources -- and people -- available to them. “I’m not gonna lie,” Charise admits. “Trying something new as an adult is scary. But knowing that I have a network of people with similar hearts to lean on has made all the difference.”
Charise believes we all have a special purpose and that she’s finally found hers through Trips for Kids.
“I don’t know how many years I have on this earth, so I want to fill my time doing things I’m passionate about,” Charise says. “Trips for Kids has allowed me to fulfill my dream of helping youth while meeting amazing people along the way.”