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Bicycling program builds healthy bodies and communities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 29, 2010 - It's not about the bikes.

No, to hear Charles Johnson tell it, the aim of the Earn-2-Bikes program, an initiative of St. Louis nonprofit Trailnet, is to make connections that promote active, healthy lifestyles and transform communities like Vinita Park.

This Saturday, 12 Vinita Park residents, ranging in age from 6 to 59, will receive refurbished bikes from the St. Louis BicycleWORKS for completing a six-week course taught by Johnson.

The classes, held the past five Saturdays in the parking lot adjacent to Vinita Park City Hall, have focused on basic bicycle maintenance and safety -- everything from learning how to change tires to how a helmet should fit properly.

Johnson stressed, however, that the most important lesson learned by his students is accountability.

"You've got to have partnerships," Johnson said. "You've got to be able to have people to do things with. If it's up to you, some people may be motivated to go out and do it individually, but ultimately having people to go with makes a huge difference."

That concept certainly connected with Alesha Barber. She had been wanting to find a way for her and her three daughters -- Alexis, 15, Alesia,11, and Aleyha, 7 -- to be more active, she said.

When Barber's sister, Antoinette Ledbetter, told her about the Earn-2-Bikes program, both women decided to sign themselves up. Ledbetter also has three children enrolled in the class, her daughters Brierra and Brianna, and son Daniel.

"It's been wonderful," Barber said. "Charles has been very helpful and the class has been very interesting. We've gone over things that I remember doing as a younger girl, so it's been funny. He's always checking with us to make sure the times are good, and it's been very pleasant working with him."

Johnson said that people are more active when they can exercise with a friend or family member, which is why each class participant is asked to sign up with a partner or a family member.

"For each one of the families, exercise-wise, they were not doing a whole lot," Johnson said. "Not much was going on before they came to the bike program."

Johnson and Barber both expect that to change. Once she and her children get their new bikes, Barber said the plan is to ride them as often as possible.

"We can't wait to get started," she said. "I picked us out a spot already in the park with a new trail. We can't wait, especially with fall kicking in."

The first opportunity to get out and see autumn from a two-wheeled perch comes Saturday, when Johnson will lead the class down the Charles M. Forrester trail. That is, after each student receives a new bike as a reward for completing the six-week program.

"Some of the parents have said, we're just so excited that our family is going to go out together and get the chance to exercise," Johnson said. "It's not something we've been able to do together, but this class is helping us do that. That's a lot of where our motivation is."

An Ongoing Partnership

Trailnet's partnership with Vinita Park started when urban planners from the nonprofit designed a pedestrian and biking master plan for the city. The project was completed in 2007.

Putting those new and improved pedestrian and bike paths to use was the next objective, Johnson said.

In 2009, Trailnet received a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health to fund the Touchstone Project, which includes the Earn-2-Bikes class.

One of the biggest challenges, Johnson said, was simply getting Vinita Park residents to feel comfortable about bikes in general.

"People don't feel comfortable going out, or don't have access to bikes, or maybe just aren't aware of how to take care of them," Johnson said. "To try to break down the barrier for inactivity there, we figured, well, we can address that by creating people who know how to work on them and being able to create people who feel comfortable doing so."

That seems to be happening, given the reaction of some residents who happened to come upon the inaugural Earn-2-Bikes class in the park on recent Saturdays.

"I see different neighbors coming out," Barber said. "They actually stop and ask us what we're doing because they see us sitting there under the tent. People drive by and almost break their necks looking."

There was also a man who came to the tent and watched and listened during a recent class, unsolicited. All of the interest can only result in more activity, Johnson said.

"If you have people who actually know what to do, they're going to bring other people in on riding," he said. "Or other people will come to them."

While promoting activity is the main objective, Johnson also touted how the Earn-2-Bikes program has been able to connect people in Vinita Park who previously would not have made the effort to reach out to one another.

A perfect example is Johnson himself, who is studying at Covenant Seminary. The seminary has an apartment complex in Vinita Park, although it's often the case that students and residents don't mix.

"With this program, a lot of the community members get a chance to meet seminary students, and the seminary students get a chance to be involved in their local community," he said.

There's also the connections made in the class between residents who previously didn't know each other.

Barber mentioned that her daughters now have 11 other people to keep them accountable when it comes to getting out and getting exercise. Some are family, and the others are now trusted friends.

"My sister's involved, and there's another lady that we hadn't met before, so she's in it," Barber said. "That allows networking for the neighborhood and keeps the kids safe if one parent may not be available. You're familiar with another person who is in the course with you. They can be out and watch the kids."

Nate Peterson is a former sports editor for the Aspen Times and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Beacon, Colorado newspapers and the New York Times.

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