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Cycling Around Dorchester

Revisiting the community: Bikes become a way to help inner-city kids avoid obesity

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Watch the slide show above to learn more about Aaron Manders and Cycle Kids.

The ways Boston University students reach into the community around us are an ongoing source of fascination — and good journalism. These connections and collaborations might at first glance seem to be one-way streets, but as each of the stories from the past school year we’re highlighting this week reveals, give and take, offering and receiving, are intimately linked.

Aaron Manders sees most of the world from the back of his fixed-gear bicycle. He can ride with no hands, pop wheelies, and remain seated steadily even when stopped at red lights. And he’s fast. On a flat surface, he’s ridden up to 26 miles per hour. Going downhill, he’s hit 41.

But he slows down every Wednesday afternoon when he volunteers at a Dorchester after-school program called Cycle Kids, a nonprofit organization that promotes exercise and healthy lifestyle options for inner-city schoolchildren by teaching them to ride bikes.

A graduate student in Sargent College’s nutrition science program, Manders (SAR’07,’10) is part of a focus group studying obesity in young people. “In the past three decades,” he says, “obesity among children has skyrocketed, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income families.”

Manders attributes this to two factors: poor diets — calorie-dense foods are cheap — and lack of exercise. “Kids don’t move the way they used to,” he says. “They typically come home to empty houses, and it’s not safe for them to play outside alone, so they sit and watch TV. They’re not out running or riding bikes.”

Growing up in Framingham, Mass., Manders learned to ride a bike when he was five years old. He briefly ditched it in high school, “when riding wasn’t cool,” but picked it up again as a college sophomore. Now he’s far more comfortable riding Boston’s busy streets on two wheels than on four. “I ride everywhere,” he says. “I love it. The wind and the sun and the speed — it just takes me back to my childhood.”

Last year, Sargent College and the School of Public Health partnered with Cycle Kids to develop nutrition lessons that could be incorporated into bicycling classes. Paula Quatromoni, a SAR assistant professor of nutrition, asked Manders to participate. “He’s so passionate about cycling that I knew he would be a great role model, particularly for the boys,” she says.

On a blustery April afternoon, Manders arrives at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center and quickly hurries to the basement. One of the boys pounces on him as soon as he walks through the door. “We gonna ride today?” he asks eagerly, hopping from foot to foot.

“Definitely,” Manders assures him. “But first we have to get through our lesson.”

The 10 children take out their workbooks and check their homework while Manders and classmate Amy Branham (SAR’10) begin the day’s lesson. Today it’s about the ABCs of bicycling: air, brakes, and chains. “How do you check the air in your tires?” Manders asks. “How do you test the brakes?”

Before long, the children are scurrying into a back room, where 10 brand-new bicycles, donated by Trek and Ace Wheelworks in Somerville, await. Donning colorful plastic helmets, they rush into the late afternoon sunshine and make their way across the street to Ronan Park.

“It’s always a challenge to get through the lesson,” Manders says as the children run up an enormous hill overlooking Boston Harbor. “The kids are so eager to ride they don’t want to sit in a classroom. But that’s the beauty of bicycling — it’s exercise, but it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like play.”

And play — pure, uninterrupted, joyous — is exactly what the children do for the next 45 minutes. Some additional lessons are thrown into the mix — Manders and Branham demonstrate how to adjust a seat and use a bicycle pump and review hand signals — but for the most part, the kids are on their bikes, pedaling furiously across the expanse of grass.

Some are more comfortable than others. Josefa Sousa, 9, is in the third grade at the James Condon Elementary School in South Boston. An immigrant from Cape Verde, she hadn’t ever ridden until two weeks ago, and she climbs onto the bright red Trek bicycle with marked trepidation. Seated unsteadily, she wobbles and falls after a few seconds. “My mom never let me ride because she said I’d get hurt,” she explains glumly. “I’m not very good at this.”

Branham quickly comes over to help. Holding Sousa’s handlebars, she walks backward as Sousa pedals forward. The little girl is scared but determined, and her spirit never wavers, even after several spills leave her legs and ankles scraped. “Those are pedal cuts,” Branham tells her. “They’re pretty special.”

Although the class is only 10 weeks long, Manders has no doubt that Sousa will master riding before the program ends. “It’s more about self-confidence and self-esteem than skills,” he says. “If we can get her past her fear of falling, the balance part will come easily.”

Most of the children enrolled in the program can’t afford bikes, Manders says, so the Cycle Kids after-school program is their only opportunity to ride. And because bike theft is such a problem, families that can afford to buy bikes don’t.

Billy Roebuck, Jr., 12, a seventh grader at the Richard J. Murphy School in Dorchester, had his bike stolen last year. “They took it right out of my yard,” he says. “Popped two locks and everything.”

Roebuck signed up for Cycle Kids because he wanted to start riding again. “When I ride a bike, I feel free,” he says. “I’ve been riding since I was two. I know how to fix a flat, oil a chain. I can do it all.”

The sun is beginning to set over the harbor by the time the children walk their bikes back to Dorchester House. They’re sweating and breathing heavily, but smiling broadly. They’ve played hard today. And that’s a good thing.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

This story originally ran April 17, 2009.

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