Bike program gives youth a path for life

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By Bella English
Globe Staff / July 25, 2011

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Cheyanne Woodrow gets on a bicycle and, with instructor Taz Thompson steadying her, takes off tentatively, making ever-widening circles on the football field at Madison Park High School. She is 12 years old, and it is her first time on a bike.

So what if she stops by putting her feet on the ground? Her grin is as wide as her mountain bike tires as she high-fives Thompson.

As Cheyanne is biking, 9-year-old Jasmine Henry is at a workbench a few blocks away, taking a wheel hub apart, cleaning and reassembling it - something usually only veteran cyclists can do. She has also learned how to fix a flat. She, too, is a fledgling cyclist.

Both children, along with two dozen others, are part of a pilot program, On My Way, On My Bike, which started earlier this month. It is a collaboration among the nonprofit Bikes Not Bombs, the city of Boston, and Brandy Cruthird, who runs a nonprofit fitness program in Roxbury for city youths.

“Children aren’t at risk if they have access to programs like this,’’ says Cruthird, who grew up in the nearby housing projects and went on to play basketball at James Madison University. “It keeps them off the streets, gives them access to being safe and learning about health, and just enjoying being kids again.’’

On My Way, On My Bike opened its doors the day after one of Boston’s bloodiest Fourth of July holidays. Four people were killed that weekend, with 15 others wounded in stabbings or shootings. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has referred to the violence as “unregulated mayhem on our streets.’’

The new summer program emphasizes fitness, self-esteem, and self-confidence, and the children are encouraged to participate in year-round activities of Bikes Not Bombs, which is dedicated to peace and social change. In fact, the youth instructors at On My Way are alumni of Bikes Not Bombs, and they will speak to the participants about guns and violence and how to avoid them.

“These issues come up here,’’ says Neil Leifer, who left his law firm a year ago to focus on children’s public health issues.

On My Way has 26 youngsters in the first session, which ends Friday; many of them, along with others, have also signed up for the August session. Participants who meet the requirements of riding and maintenance can keep the bike at the end. The used bicycles were donated by the city, as were locks and helmets.

Though many children consider helmets uncool, the youngsters were put through an egg drop exercise the first day, in which it was demonstrated - with a resounding splat - what could happen to them if they do not protect their heads.

“I always wear a helmet,’’ Leifer tells the children. He is a veteran rider who puts 200 miles a week on his Bianchi road bike. He is encouraged by what he has seen so far and would like to expand the program throughout Boston and beyond.

A trial lawyer for 27 years, working on environmental and public health litigation, Leifer became interested in the issue of childhood obesity and empowerment. He began meeting with Sarah Braunstein of Bikes Not Bombs and Cruthird.

On My Way is the result of those meetings.

Cruthird does outreach and enrollment, and many of the children are referred to her by neighborhood clinics. She takes their weight and body mass index periodically, charting their progress.

Cruthird, Braunstein, and Leifer are always on site at Cruthird’s gym or on the rides, overseeing bike lessons and repairs. “I see 8- and 9-year-old girls saying things like, ‘I’m ugly’ or ‘I don’t like myself,’ ’’ Braunstein says. “In some small way, putting them on a bike and having positive female role models, we can help them feel better about themselves.’’

The children did not ride before because no one taught them and they did not grow up in a green area where there are places to ride, she adds.

Leifer got members of his own cycling group, Crack O’ Dawn riders in Newton, to design and put together the five work stands where the youngsters are taught bike maintenance. Victor Peguero, 18, is one of the instructors.

While the older children are out biking, Peguero and other instructors have the younger ones at Cruthird’s gym, where a room upstairs has been turned into a workshop. Each of the five work stations has a pegboard loaded with wrenches, pliers, screw drivers, and hammers. Leifer raised money from private donors and the New England Patriots Foundation, which provided gear for each child, including pumps, tools, lights, bags, and tubes.

At 6, D’Adriana Lindsey is barely taller than her workbench. But she is scrubbing that wheel hub as if it is a prized trophy. Cruthird bends down to help her.

Meanwhile, the older children have walked their bikes in sweltering heat to nearby Madison Park High. On the basketball courts, there is a safety session where they check their brakes, tire pressure, headset, stem, and cranks.

A row of 13 bikes and riders lines up single-file behind instructor Jazmin Alicea, 17. “Give me a right turn signal!’’ she shouts, and 13 left arms rise, bent at the elbow in a 90-degree angle. They then go over the rules of group riding.

“What do you say if there’s a biker coming at you?’’

“Biker up!’’ they shout.

“What if there’s a car behind the group?’’

“Car back!’’

“What if you see an armadillo?’’

“Armadillo!’’ At this, there are a few giggles and one youngster mutters: “What’s an armadillo?’’

Most of the beginning bikers are tailgating another rider, someone falls but is not hurt, and Leifer calls for them to “space it up some, guys.’’ One of the boys indelicately complains about what the seat is doing to his private parts. Another is teetering, with a heavy water bottle dangling from his handlebar.

Everyone looks happy tooling around.

In the workshop, a 6-year-old girl is also tooling around. She is at her workbench, reassembling that sparkling hub she just cleaned.

Bella English can be reached at