Ask Stephen Janes what his favorite part about working with kids is and he will tell you the story of a kid who rode a bike in the woods for the first time.
“It was on a greenway about a mile from his house that he had never been on,” Janes said. “He’s riding into the woods for the first time and yelling, ‘It smells like trees!’ That sticks with me. My family and I joke about that all the time. Every time we go out in the woods, we’re like, “Aaahhh, it smells like trees!’ We have so much access that we tend to take for granted and it reminds me not to take that for granted. Even if I’m having the worst ride of my life, it’s more rides than some kids will ever have.”
Janes runs The Bicycle Thrift Shop located along the Swannanoa River in Asheville, N.C. At the shop, he takes in gently used bikes and refurbishes them to sell back to the community. The store funds the ride program Janes started in 2010, Adventure Kids WNC.
“There are a lot of kids who are not able to get on bikes or get to a good place to ride,” he said. “Let’s get them outside of their walls that they are currently in and show them another piece of the world that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Adventure Kids is a free after-school program that runs at an elementary school, a high school, and three middle schools in Western North Carolina. The kids learn about bike safety and road etiquette around the school campuses, using bikes and helmets provided by donations and profits from the thrift shop. During the summer, Janes takes the kids out into Pisgah National Forest to experience the trails.
“We’ve been able to teach 18 kids how to ride a bike. The smile on their face, the joy you can see in them when they are finally able to pedal around and not fall over, to finally get that moment sticks with me forever and encourages me to keep going,” Janes said.
More than 3,200 kids have benefited from this program in the eight years it has been running. Alison Rhodes is a counselor at A.C. Reynolds Middle School where Janes has been running the program for four years.
“Many of our students don’t live in neighborhoods or places where it’d be safe to ride a bike,” she said. “It’s something they can enjoy at school but also something they can take out when they’re at a point in their lives where they can do things more independently.”
Before starting Adventure Kids, Janes worked as a camp counselor and a mental health professional. He focused on helping kids modify their behavior and develop coping skills.
“Knowing the issues that exist amongst our community youth and understanding that bicycles are not just a tool for recreation, but can build self-confidence, can help these kids have goals, can give them a broader worldview, I knew that the two go hand in hand and complement each other,” he said.
Janes started off selling used bikes people donated at festivals before realizing he could sustain a business selling refurbished bikes to fund the program.
“I knew it would be one of those things where you don’t always see immediate results,” he said. “It’s one of those things where ten years down the road, a kid will be in a tough situation and look back and remember the bike trip that he or she was on, struggling to get up the hill and kept at it and made it to the top. They’ll look back and it will add confidence to their daily lives.”
A number of other programs are using bikes to increase confidence among youth participants. Sarmuna Wei, 17, said she has already benefitted from her experience with Spoke’n Revolutions, a cycling and history program based in Carrboro, N.C.
During the summer of 2017, she was part of a group that biked a section of the Trail of Tears. They traveled across multiple states, learning about the forced removal of Native Americans from their land in the 1800s.
“The first year had a really big impact on me,” Wei said. “I thought I knew myself well but after doing this tour, I learned that I am a much stronger person.”
Wei returned the following year for the Bikes, Water & Soul tour, a blend of environmental justice and local history. Staying in North Carolina, the group biked along the Neuse River to the Outer Banks and back to Carrboro.
“There were times when we had to make sacrifices and just bike on the highway,” Wei said. “And that really scared me because I have a big fear of trucks, like an 18-wheeler. It’s a big fear of mine and I had to bike next to them. So I was shook and scared… I have faced so many fears. This tour has helped me face most of them. I am a much more confident person now.”
When Kevin Hicks started Spoke’n Revolutions, he wasn’t sure if teenagers would be willing to bike long distances.
“It started as an idea to give youth of color opportunities to experience travel and distance cycling,” he said. “It was not only the distance in the cycling, it was learning the history along the way.”
For the first trip in 2011, Hicks led the group from Mobile, Ala. to Niagara Falls along the Underground Railroad. They rode between 45 to 70 miles a day, learning about the history of slavery along the way.
Hicks has since traveled thousands of miles with teenagers on bikes. Each trip focuses on a different subject, including Blues & Jazz History, a trip from New Orleans, La. to St. Louis, Mo, and King 2 King, a ride focused on the history of the Civil Rights Movement from Atlanta, Ga. to Washington, D.C.
In seven years, 60 kids have benefitted from this program, most returning for another ride as participants or group leaders once they have aged out.
“The reason why I’m in this is to watch the kids grow and transform, helping make that light switch go off,” Hicks said.
More Youth Adventures
Looking for a similar program near you? Check out these organizations around the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast that are providing access to the outdoors for kids.
Oasis Bike Workshop
At the free Oasis Bike Workshops, participants have the opportunity to build a bike from scratch and ride away with a bike, helmet, tools, and an alternative form of transportation.
Pittsburgh Youth Leadership
Since 2006, riders participating in Pittsburgh Youth Leadership have biked more than 290,000 miles across 49 states.
Outdoor Education Center
Harper’s Ferry, W. Va.
The Outdoor Education Center offers a variety of programming, from environmental education to multi-day backpacking trips, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
City Kids Wilderness Project
City Kids provides year round support to students through middle and high school while encouraging learning through nontraditional methods including overnight trips during the school year and a summer camp in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Blue Sky Fund
The Blue Sky Fund, in conjunction with eight Richmond public schools, offers after school and summer programs, giving kids the chance to try rock climbing, orienteering, kayaking, and hands on science classes.