It's Saturday morning in California's Marin County, and the
weekend warriors are taking to the trails like high-tech ants to
a picnic. Sporting the latest mountain-biking gear, they zip
down the hills in a flash of bright colors. Alongside them are a
dozen inner-city kids, huffing and puffing on bikes that have
seen better days. The children periodically pause to curse or
pull up their baggy hip-hop pants. "I'm not gonna make it, I
know I'm not gonna make it," moans Chinaka, 14, to her
19-year-old cousin, Natasha. "Girl, why'd you bring me here?"
Natasha's reply is cool: "'Cause if I didn't, you wouldn't be
doing anything. Just hanging and doing nothing."
Replacing boredom with bikes is just one of the many missions of
Trips for Kids, a program that gives inner-city children a
chance to get on the wooded trails that have made Marin a mecca
for mountain bikers. Marilyn Price, the program's 54-year-old
founder, sees the trail rides as a way for disadvantaged youth
to break boundaries both physical and metaphysical. "Many of the
kids have never been over the Golden Gate Bridge, let alone
ridden a bike on anything other than pavement," she says.
"Everyone learns something different from the rides, including
Price, who lives in Mill Valley, got the idea for the program
while biking one day in 1986 on Marin's Mount Tamalpais. "It
just didn't seem fair that this kind of outdoor experience
wasn't available to everyone--especially kids," she says. An
ardent mountain biker and community worker, Price felt that by
combining her interests she could make a difference. To help
launch her project a local stockbroker contributed 10 mountain
bikes, and the Specialized company followed suit, donating nine.
Soon other businesses came through with bike parts, helmets and
September 17, 1995
With the help of volunteers and of groups such as the Sierra
Club and the Bicycle Trails Council of Marin, Price's dream
became a reality. Trips for Kids now has chapters in Berkeley,
Mill Valley and L.A., and it annually serves more than 500
children from community programs including homeless shelters and
projects that work with children at risk. Last year Price also
opened the Re-Cyclery, a clubhouse and secondhand bike shop in
San Rafael where kids can earn credits toward their own bicycles
by learning how to build and repair bikes. Nehemias, an
11-year-old who was born in Guatemala and is a Re-Cyclery
regular, says he gets more than entertainment at the shop.
"People call me the bike fix-it guy around my apartment
building," he says with a grin. This kind of self-esteem is what
Price hopes the shop and the rides will provide many children.
But biking with Trips for Kids isn't always a joyride. Recently
a single bee caused 10 children to drop their bikes and run away
screaming. A friendly horseback rider was eyed with caution, and
a distant bang triggered an animated debate complete with expert
testimonials: It was a gunshot; it was fireworks.
For these kids even the exercise is new, and the same trails
that draw bikers and hikers from the world over can seem like
enemy territory. Inching his way up the third daunting hill of
the day, 10-year-old Jeremy finally throws in the towel and
threatens to walk home. Chinaka wants to join him. "I've had
enough," she says angrily. "If he goes, I go." Price pulls over,
sits down beside them and patiently tells them, "We're almost to
the top. Most people give up exercising after 20 minutes, and
they miss the payback--because it gets easier, really. C'mon,
I'll help you walk your bikes." With much persuasion, Jeremy and
Chinaka succumb, and in a few minutes they reach the summit.
Reunited with the group, they fly down the trail, letting loose
whoops of delight. At the bottom of the hill Chinaka and Natasha
pause to compare muscles.
"Once they make it up a hill, I know they've learned something,"
says Price. "As one boy said after a ride, 'I learned that if I
stick with it, I can make it to the top.' If he can transfer
that experience to other areas of his life, we've accomplished a
Eileen Hansen is a freelance writer from Mill Valley, Calif.,
who frequently rows and runs.