Hanging out with Cait Rodriguez while I was in Anchorage last December, we got to talking about community bike projects. In the spring of 2016, Cait, Nick and I teamed up to source and repair 35 bikes for two low income third grade classes at Russian Jack Elementary.
At the time, my mom was a teacher at Russian Jack. In the spring, as the days were getting longer and the snow was melting, she asked her class how many of them had bikes. Only six of the thirty kids in her class raised their hands. She came home from school and told me about it.
Then, she asked, is there anyway we could get these kids bikes?
I called up Cait. Cait is a volunteer manager at Off The Chain Bicycle Collective, the Anchorage Bike Coop. I told her about my mom’s class and asked if there was anyway we could get these kids bikes.
Oh, sure. We’ve got tons of kids’ bikes at the coop.
So, we got to work. We tracked down bikes with 16”, 20” and 24” wheels at the coop– mostly used Walmart bikes. We told people around Anchorage about our project and they donated more kids bikes. Volunteers from Off The Chain and The Bicycle Shop helped to get them rolling. At the time, Nick and I were working 7 days a week at The Bicycle Shop. We spent many nights working until midnight at the coop to get the kids’ bikes rolling. We hosted two field trips at Off The Chain, one for each of the third grade classes at Russian Jack. The students visited the space, learned about volunteering and test rode the bicycles. Fortunately, all but one of them could proficiently ride. During the field trip, we fitted students and put their names on bikes. A couple of the kids had bikes at home that were out of repair, so we told them to bring the bikes to school and we’d fix them up.
Once the bikes were ready to go, we transported all of them to Russian Jack Elementary for a third grade bike rodeo in the parking lot. We set up five stations and a practice course. In addition to the bikes, the students received helmets and locks. When you’re seven-years-old, having a bike is a big step towards independence. Scott Jensen from Alaska Dispatch News captured this project in a short video.
This project wouldn’t have been possible without an extraordinary amount of energy from the third grade teachers, the mechanics from The Bicycle Shop and the volunteers from Off The Chain Bicycle Collective.
This year, I’ve received several emails asking if we’re going to repeat the kids’ bikes project this year. I would be happy to help facilitate this project, but we really need a specific school and teachers to work with. Off The Chain still has plenty of donated kids’ bikes and fantastic volunteers that would probably help get these bikes rolling. There are still many kids in Anchorage that don’t have bikes. If you have a vision for this program this year and energy to see it through, get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to help. Anchorage is a city rich in resources with a great disparity in wealth. I truly believe that providing bikes to people of any age is a step towards independence and health. Let’s get more people in Anchorage on bikes.
This December I asked Cait, do you want to do another kids’ bikes project?
Oh, sure. But what if instead of providing bikes for elementary school kids, we worked with middle school girls.
And that was the start of Anchorage GRIT– Girls Riding Into Tomorrow, a middle school girls’ bicycle program. Our imaginations fired up. There were so many things we could do with these girls. So many things we would’ve loved to do when we were in 7th grade. First, we schemed up the final project, a 45 mile ride from Anchorage on bike paths and gravel roads to Eklutna Lake and an overnight at the Serenity Falls Forest Service cabin. Then we started designing a schedule to lead up to the capstone camp out.
In January, Cait and I flew to San Diego to ride the Baja Divide. We hashed out the the details for GRIT while riding and camping together in Mexico. Anchorage GRIT would be a six week mentorship program in Anchorage meeting 2-3 times a week. We would work with 2 different middle schools from the Anchorage School District. The schools would select five 7th grade female students to participate in GRIT. All of the sessions would lead up to the capstone camp out, a weekend long bikepacking adventure from Anchorage to Eklutna Lake. All of the sessions would include a ride to a lesson or a volunteering opportunity with lessons in safe riding, bicycle maintenance, route planning, packing for trips, mountain bike skills, stretching and fitness. From Mexico, we sent an itinerary to principals in the Anchorage School District about working with their schools. We started recruiting mentors and expert women from the community to teach the workshops. GRIT was gaining steam fast– it seemed like everyone we talked to about GRIT was wild about the program and wanted to help us however they could. During this time, I reached out to Vanessa and Katie Sue from Specialized and asked if they could provide bikes for the girls. They were all for it!
In February, Cait headed back to Anchorage and I kept riding in Mexico. Back in town, Cait started meeting with counselors and teachers from the schools. We focused in on Begich Middle School and Steller Secondary School. Teachers from the schools nominated students for the program and Cait held interest meetings for the students and parents. In early March, the girls and parents committed to GRIT.
On April 8, 11 Specialized Jynx bicycles arrived to The Bicycle Shop. With the help of all of the employees at the shop, we built the bikes after hours and had them ready for the parent and student meeting the following day.
On April 9, We wrote the girls’ names on the top tubes of their bicycles and parked them out front of The Bicycle Shop. That evening, the 11 students and 5 mentors that make up Team GRIT met for the first time at The Bicycle Shop. The girls found their new bikes and Lindsey Hajduk and Kati Ward from Bike Anchorage taught a safe riding lesson. We fitted the girls to their bikes and practiced skills in the parking lot.
The next day, we met at The Bicycle Shop for our first real ride.