Words by Nick Legan, photos courtesy of Trips for Kids
As a reader of Dirt Rag, you may have taken the opportunity to ride a bicycle early in life for granted. I did until I spoke with two people who are working to ensure that more kids get the chance to ride bikes and appreciate the outdoors: Marilyn Price and Robert Ping, the founder and new executive director for the national nonprofit Trips for Kids. At a young age, I was given a bicycle and wobbly lessons on how to ride it. Aside from an early encounter with a tree prior to my understanding of steering and brakes, I’ve spent much of my life outside, in the elements, surrounded by the colors of nature, aboard a bicycle. Many children aren’t so lucky.
For nearly 30 years, Trips for Kids has given at-risk youth the chance to experience the joy of riding a bike and build self-confidence along the way. While there are now over 75 independent chapters in North America and Israel, Trips for Kids began small. In 1988, Price took a group of underserved youth on a mountain bike ride. That is how it began, with one ride in Marin County. After several years of hard work to establish and serialize the Trail Rides program, Trips for Kids began to grow. In 1994 the Earn-a-Bike program and the Re-Cyclery Bike Shop were established. The shop serves the community with affordable bikes, clothing and accessories while also funding many of the Trips for Kids initiatives. The Earn-a-Bike program teaches youth how to maintain bicycles, learning important mechanical and life skills in the process.
Thanks to a Bicycling magazine profile in the early 1990s, the Marin organization started receiving requests from people in other areas wanting to do something similar. During this period, expansion of Trips for Kids was rapid. Price says, “We grew about 10 chapters per year. All of them during those years would take the more at-risk kids on rides. Beyond the name ‘Trips for Kids,’ that was what bound us all together: taking at-risk kids on mountain bike rides.”
Now in 30 states and four countries, Trips for Kids has taken 175,000 kids for a ride in the dirt—a monumental achievement. At each ride, youth get a chance to spend time in green spaces while escaping their routine. As stated on its site, Trips for Kids also focuses on building self-esteem, creating healthy life- styles and instilling environmental values. While Trips for Kids has had a profound impact on many youth since 1988, the organization is now taking steps to ensure it continues to do so for years to come. Impressively, the Marin chapter, Trips for Kids’ first, has acted as the de facto national umbrella office since 1999. In addition to running local initiatives, Marin chapter staff divide their attention between local duties, helping new chapters get underway and supporting established chapters.
According to Price, “Marin was synonymous with national Trips for Kids. We did the work for national as well as the work for Marin and we just kept careful records. And we shared a board [of directors], which is unusual for a national organization, so the decisions that we made for all the other chapters were made by a board of Marin people. We had struggled with that for years, but there is a lot of expense associated with forming a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Finally we decided to tackle it.”
Once that decision was made, things quickly got exciting at Trips for Kids. Earlier in 2017, Trips for Kids filed the paperwork to create a new 501(c)(3) to act as an umbrella organization aimed at expanding awareness and supporting local chapters in a unified manner. A one-year timeline that included the separation of the national organization, the hiring of a national executive director and recruiting a new board of directors was announced.
Ping, a self-professed “bike-aholic” and longtime cycling advocate, took the helm of the national Trips for Kids organization starting August 1 as its executive director. He brings an impressive résumé to his new position. His background includes years of work in youth advocacy and an extended stint as the associate director of Trips for Kids Marin. Most recently Ping worked with Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance (now called The Street Trust), founding their successful Safe Routes to School program. But an urge to return to mountain biking and see kids, especially those of lesser means, get access to green spaces brought his attention back to Trips for Kids.
Speaking in last summer, Ping’s excitement was obvious. Beyond the foundation of an umbrella Trips for Kids, Ping added that “the organization has slightly changed its mission and vision. We are now expanding the scope of the mission from primarily underserved youth to all youth, with a focus on underserved youth. We think this will provide new opportunities for partnerships with park departments, after-school programs and groups like NICA [the National Interscholastic Cycling Association]. We’ve partnered with them and created a group called the Youth Cycling Alliance. We’re hoping to get programs of all sorts that are getting kids on bikes to start talking more at the national level to see how we can improve and increase the rates of kids riding bikes and being more exposed to the outdoors.”
While Ping has worked extensively in the policy realm and understands its importance, he feels that programming has the greatest potential to increase ridership. He explains, “With all the work we’ve done in cycling advocacy, we’ve only increased our mode share in the number of cyclists by a small percentage compared to what’s possible.
“We’ve seen sports like soccer explode. And I think their tactic is different from cycling’s. Cycling went for the superhero approach: Let’s inspire people with superheroes to get them to want to ride. Soccer went for mom-and-pop, after-school, neighborhood, low-entry-barrier approaches and they are a household activity now. I think we have the opportunity to do the same thing. Ultimately, I think we can expand cycling overall by creating a whole new generation of kids who experience cycling and therefore will support it. Even if they’re not regular cyclists, they’ll have a better appreciation for it.”
With that aim in mind—creating a generation of cyclists—Trips for Kids has a goal to reach half a million youth in the next 10 years. This is lofty talk when you consider that in the past 28 years Trips for Kids has taken 175,000 kids for a ride. It’ll require a hefty increase in chapters and participant recruitment, but Ping is confident that it’s possible. “It’s good to have big goals,” he adds.
Ping also feels that both the sport of cycling and the industry are primed to help. He contends that we, as a society, are not spending enough energy on youth. But thankfully the industry, advocacy groups and racing organizations are starting to realize that. To help languishing sales and participation, we need to make cycling more of a mainstream activity to avoid or better survive these dips. This new awareness will create opportunities for collaboration with Trips for Kids.
Ping is excited about the formation of the Trips for Kids national umbrella in order to realize these goals. He says, “We have many existing chapters and some of them are very strong while others are not. A lot of that is based on how much support they are getting and how much knowledge local leaders have. By formalizing our chapters we can help support existing chapters and bring technical assistance to them. If we’re boosting our national presence, we can also start bringing in more funding for the organization and more knowledge among the population about Trips for Kids. That is a particular interest of mine. I talk to a lot of my mountain bike buddies and they haven’t heard of Trips for Kids even though we’ve been around for a while. We have a lot of work to do in making sure that every mountain biker in the U.S. knows what Trips for Kids is. Ultimately it would also be nice if every school student in the U.S. has access to a biking program.”
While the work that Trips for Kids is doing is certainly impactful in the lives of the youth who participate and is just plain good business for the cycling industry, the ramifications extend much further. Healthcare is a highly divisive subject with no easy solution, but perhaps if we allocated as many resources to instilling good habits in children, much of the later expense could be avoided altogether. Schools are increasingly shuttering physical education programs, and after-school programs like soccer are taking up some of the slack. And it’s working: A 2008 Harvard study showed that after-school programs improve academic performance, social and emotional development and health and wellness, and they help prevent risky behaviors.
Ping explains the situation: “All kids are at risk, ultimately, because they’re not getting access to biking or exposure to the outdoors. There is a physical-inactivity crisis. Kids are playing video games. Parents are afraid to let their kids outside. There are a whole host of problems for all kids of all income levels, especially those underserved. We want to get them outdoors, exposed to the natural environment, and boost their self-esteem. We want them to find new ways to play and be outdoors.” And that is an effort worth applauding.
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