Stick a kid in a car, and it’s not long before you’ll hear the universal cry of confined youth: “Are we there yet? When are we going to get there?”  Stick a kid in a room full of bikes, however, and you’ll hear a different query: “When do we get to ride?” 

If you think about it, both questions reflect the same instinct: kids don’t want to be trapped and sedentary, they want to be out doing something adventurous and fun, especially after a long day at school where they’re constantly being told to sit down and be quiet.

Which brings us to Bike Club, an after-school program in Tulsa, OK that connects kids with bikes and adult mentors, through a partnership with Tulsa Public Schools and dozens of volunteers and donors. The mission of Bike Club is simple: to help children from less privileged circumstances access the joys and benefits of cycling.

Bike Club members test out temporary bike lanes on Route 66 in Tulsa, OK. - Photo courtesy of Bike Club.

Bike Club members test out temporary bike lanes on Route 66 in Tulsa, OK. - Photo courtesy of Bike Club.

Kids in Bike Club start by learning basic skills (how to check tire pressure, use hand signals, shift gears, etc).  At first, they spend most of their time riding around the school grounds to gain confidence and practice fundamentals.  As the year goes on, Bike Clubbers graduate to short trips on city streets, and eventually head out on longer field trips to nearby kid-friendly destinations. At the end of the school year, every student who completes the program receives a free bike to take home.

Now in its third year, Bike Club has expanded to nine elementary schools in Tulsa.  Each club has a sponsoring group to ensure there are enough mentors to maintain the 5:1 student to adult ratio.  Sponsors include cycling clubs, non-profit organizations, local churches and the YMCA.  In addition, each school has faculty volunteers who participate along with the kids.

Volunteers assemble bikes for Bike Club - Photo by Sarah Kobos

Volunteers assemble bikes for Bike Club - Photo by Sarah Kobos

Participation in Bike Club requires good behavior, good grades, and good attendance at school, which gives teachers and administrators a way to help motivate kids who need a little extra help.  Along the way, the students learn a bit about math, physics, health and fitness, as well as social skills and bike mechanics.

But most importantly, they get to expand their world and explore it on two wheels with adults who care about them.  They get to build friendships, while experiencing the fun and freedom of cycling. 

Not every Bike Club lesson is for the children.

When you go through orientation to be a Bike Club volunteer (like I did), they talk about how much the kids need this experience--how important it is to have a consistent group of adults who show up every week.  How you may be the only grownup in their life who reliably demonstrates compassion and kindness.  Men who volunteer learn that they may be the only adult male role model some kids will have.

They talk about how, if students misbehave, it may simply be that they’re hungry, because for some kids, lunch in the cafeteria is the only guaranteed meal of the day.  Or they may be tired, because not every child has a safe and quiet home.

Statements like these can feel like a punch in the gut.  It’s humbling to think about how comparatively privileged my life has been—and to appreciate the obstacles some kids must overcome just to make it through the day.  

As a Bike Club volunteer, I feel like I learn something every week, though not necessarily from the official curriculum. I learn from the kids themselves.

Watching our incredibly diverse group of youngsters interact is a gift.  In some ways, I think the younger generations could teach adults a few things about how to get along.

Like any group, we have kids from different backgrounds who learn at different speeds.  We have kids with different language skills.  We’ve got boys and girls.  We’ve got black kids and white kids and every shade of brown kids.  We’ve got skinny kids and overweight kids.  We’ve got show offs and shy kids and confident kids and uncertain ones who doubt their own abilities.

You’d think it would be chaos, but once you get everyone pedaling, they become a team, unified by the joy and excitement of riding together.

Once everyone’s on a bike, all you see are smiles.

It's what Bike Club is all about.

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