Life Lessons? For These Kids, It's Like Riding A Bike

An innovative program in Kalamazoo, Mich., is giving children from under-served communities a chance to do something that so many other children take for granted: riding a bicycle. Kyle Norris of Michigan Radio reports.

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An innovative program in Kalamazoo, Michigan is giving children from under served communities a chance to do something so many other children take for granted - ride a bicycle. Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris reports that the heart of the program is about really teaching basic social skills.

KYLE NORRIS: Say you're 12 years old. And you hear about this program in your neighborhood, where they're giving away free bikes. So you check it out, and get roped you into a big circle.

Mr. ETHAN ALEXANDER (Open Roads): Mr. Jordan, can I ask you to move that center bike to the side?

NORRIS: That guy leading the circle is Ethan Alexander. He created the Open Roads bike program.

Mr. ALEXANDER: We're all going to say who we are and what we love about bikes.

PHILLIPE: Hi, my name is Phillipe and my favorite part about bikes is riding them.

NORRIS: Right off the bat Alexander points to a poster with a list of rules.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's the first one, respect. I want everybody to turn to the person next to them and shake their hand with some respect. Good, good. Shake their hand with some respect.

NORRIS: The kids count off and get paired with adult volunteers.

Unidentified Child #1: I'm four.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Five, thank you.

NORRIS: Many of the adults here are not only bike enthusiasts but they're also social workers, counselors and teachers. Pretty soon bikes are flipped over, and kids and adults are analyzing bicycle ailments.

Unidentified Man: I want to use this chain, though. What you think about this one?

Unidentified Child #2: Yeah, it's good. It's probably a little big though.

NORRIS: Alexander started Open Roads three years ago. In his professional life he works as a positive behavior support specialist for the Kalamazoo public schools. That means Alexander trains educators in how to make schools more positive places to be. Thirteeen-year old Aarion Barlow has been working hard on fulfilling the requirements of this program, and getting her skill sheet checked off.

Ms. AARION BARLOW: I like to spray WD40 on the chains and fix flats.

NORRIS: She says she especially likes coming to Open Roads to give the adult mechanics a hand.

Alexander says the heart of this program is about working with children who don't have opportunities in other venues.

Mr. ALEXANDER: A lot of these kids may not be successful in school. They make not be successful in other avenues. But you put a wrench in their hand or you put a screwdriver in their hand and that's when they kind of light up.

NORRIS: He says kids also walk away with better social skills.

Mr. ALEXANDER: They can translate those into the first time Aarion goes out and she gets a job at Zoo City Bicycle, for example. She can say I'm Aarion. I'm a junior mechanic. It's nice to meet you. And then she really impresses people with her fantastic skills.

NORRIS: And that's fine and good. But Aarion Barlow wants one thing.

Ms. BARLOW: I would like to get a bike so I could go ride on the Kalamazoo public trail, places like downtown and all that stuff. To the museum and riding my bike without no one stealing it if I have a lock.

And at the end of tonight's workshop, Aarion meets all the class requirements. And she gets everything checked off her list. And she gets that bike.

For NPR news, I'm Kyle Norris.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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