Imagine you can go anywhere you want.
It’s liberating, even as a concept. Two wheels give many children their first taste of freedom. But some get left behind.
Through the Bike Recycle program in Memphis, at-risk and low-income kids receive bicycles along with training on how to use and care for them.
“When you have the ability to get on a bike and travel somewhere you want to go, it instantly changes your mindset about who you are and how you can impact the world,” says Natalie Wilson, Senior Manager of Visitor Experience for the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.
“When we can get moving, when we can just go, it strengthens our self confidence, and that’s especially true for kids. When a child learns to bike, they learn they have the ability to do other things too.”
Partnerships roll on
As the name “Bike Recycle” indicates, most of the bikes are refurbished, but some are donated new by supporters or stores. Bike Recycle partners with organizations that serve underprivileged youth — the YMCA, Girls, Inc., Multi-National Ministries — to find participants.
As soon as school lets out for winter break, the kids spend two weeks learning safety, the rules of the road, and how to keep their bikes in good working order. They learn about the health benefits of biking and, in turn, the importance of health and wellness in general.
Because the training takes place at Shelby Farms, the kids become familiar with the park, which makes them more likely to return and take advantage of all it has to offer. Once they successfully complete the course, they receive a certificate and the bike becomes officially theirs. More often than not, they also leave with a few new friends.
Finding new friends on two wheels
“I remember in one class we had two brothers who came to the U.S. from Nigeria,” recalls Wilson. “They knew no one and didn’t speak English, so they were terrified. But they found a rapport with the other kids as they all learned to ride their bikes together despite the language barrier.
“For kids, different doesn’t have to mean strange; it can mean ‘we have something to learn from each other.’
“Seeing kids embrace one another that way is powerful.”
Originally, the program kicked off in Binghampton, an inner-city area that has little access to green space. The kids fell in love with cycling immediately, and today many use the Greenline, a 11-mile paved trail that connects Midtown to Shelby Farms, to access 4,500 acres of green space that park offers.
Over the past decade Wilson has enjoyed watching that first group of students grow into healthy, engaged citizens.
“In the past decade, we’ve seen phenomenal health benefits,” says Wilson. “We’ve watched these children grow up, continue in our programs and come back to the park.
“We hear stories all the time about how these kids are leaders, in their classrooms, communities and families, getting their siblings and parents involved in biking and other healthy activities. The common ground these bikes provide has been a great byproduct of the program, and it’s inspiring to see the relationships Bike Recycle has helped to build.”