Southeast Youth Corps "Girls on Wheels" Program Gets Off To A Great Start

Article, written by Program Leader Meagan Daniel, appears on Southeast Youth Corps' website.

Last week, the Girls on Wheels program, which consists of ten girls ages 12-16, started without a hitch.  The girls participate in an environmental stewardship program that includes conservation education, service-learning projects, and a progressive skills mountain bike curriculum. The young women are being guiding through the mountain bike curriculum three days per week. Within this program the girls will be photo journaling their experience, focusing on their mountain bike and recreation experience, as well as highlighting environmental issues relevant to an urban landscape. Additionally, I work to foster positive mentorship, and personal and professional development amongst the members.

While maintaining a safe environment, this gives the girls the opportunity to expand the know-how of a sport that stretches beyond the streets and curbs outside their homes and will also grow a respect for the trails. For many, mountain biking brings a “sense of freedom” and an escape from the hassles of life. For these young-women, I believe it will represent overcoming adversity and limitations and the testing of one’s confidence. Just like the trails, life presents many sharp turns, rocky paths, roots to hurdle, downhill elations, up-hill battles, and moments of new accomplishments. But each requires proper handling skills to make it to the other side. I want to properly be able to guide these girls on the trails in correlation to life outside the trails. And get our hands dirty while doing it! There is certainly joy to be found in sharing something you enjoy with someone who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to discover it also.

Day one:  The van pulls up to the Spears Ave trailhead at Stringers Ridge. The girls jumped out and immediately began excitingly asking, “Are we going to ride today?” One was already asking if we were going to Raccoon Mountain, which is one of the more challenging mountain bike destinations in Chattanooga. Enthusiastic group! In the first week the young women were adapting to the basics skills of mountain biking and it was success!

The girls came up with the name “Spoke Squad” after we did an activity using a drawing of a wheel on a poster board (yes, my wheel looks more like a beach ball!). Inside the wheel we came up with words that described how we wanted our outlook to be during the next five weeks or things we wanted to accomplish. On the outside of the wheel we listed negative things that we did not want as part of our program. I explained to them that our group would act like a wheel:  If one spoke is out of balance or broken then the whole wheel is “out of true” and cannot function and therefore the bike will not perform properly. This stressed the importance that even though mountain biking seems like an individual sport, we were going to function like a team and going to help each other accomplish our goals. Each one of us represents a spoke and has a crucial role in the involvement and progression of the program.

The girls learned the proper way to fit a helmet and the importance of safety and wearing a helmet. I fitted the girls for their bikes and taught them the “ABC Quick Check”, which is an acronym for: Air, Brakes, Chain, Quick Release, and Drop Check. This is a five-step process for making sure the bike is in working condition before we ride. The girls then learned road safety, how to signal to cars, how to call out obstacles and hazards in the road, and to communicate with fellow riders in the group while riding on the road or in the trail systems.

On day two we had our intro into conservation: what it means, how it affects them and our communities, and the role we play. They began by doing their own research on the laptops about the topic; it began to trigger ideas about what the term encompassed. The girls were finding photos of nature, wildlife, state and national parks, and groups and organizations that help protect our lands. For the photojournalism portion of the day we went to Stringer’s Ridge and let them hike and take photos of the urban-forested park.

I conducted a decomposing activity in which the girls had to place various objects with the amount of years they thought it took for a certain object or materials to decompose. This really made them think about the ways things they use daily affect our environment, like an aluminum can, which can take up to 500 years to decompose. This activity leads into a discussion about Leave No Trace. “LNT” refers to a set of outdoor ethics that teaches principles designed to promote conservation in the outdoors. The organization Leave No Trace exists to educate people about their recreational impact on nature as well as the principles of Leave No Trace to prevent and minimize such impacts. Leave No Trace is built on seven principles: plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors. The seven principles have been adapted to different activities, ecosystems and environments.

Day three we had a “bike rodeo” and I began teaching basic handling techniques for riding a mountain bike. How to properly mount and dismount. They practiced the four proper positions on a bike: climbing, coasting, downhill, and attack. They began to learn the basics of cornering, taking turns, braking, and how their bodies balance relates to the controlling of a bike. We then took these skills to Renaissance and Coolidge Park, where they began to get comfortable on the bike. But one thing we didn’t cover- timing of when to pedal through sprinklers and not get wet! Some of us enjoyed the cool down!

The most exciting part of day four was our Fix a Flat Clinic. I brought all the front wheels of the bikes and taught from beginning to end how to remove a wheel, fix a flat, and put wheel back on the bike. Each girl was able to do this skill on her own by the end of the clinic. They enjoyed this so much they wanted to have a flat tire changing contest.  The winner was able to change a flat in just 2 minutes and 18 seconds! One young woman even went home and fixed her little brother’s flat! And that’s what we are aiming for: to instill the confidence in the girls to take what they have learned and feel empowered to use these skills.

Day five arrives and “Spoke squad” was anxious to get out and ride further than the parking lot and parks of North Shore. We traveled across Market Street Bridge towards downtown and headed out on the Riverwalk. They loved the sense of freedom it brought and I kept hearing them say “This is so fun!”  Towards the end of the ride, the exhaustion of the week set in and the pace slowed down. This led into a perfect opportunity to explain that any new challenge comes with adjustments and difficulties.  I was able to reinforce that the first hurdle has been overcome.  The effort was put it in and the longer they stick with it the better it will get! They thought riding a few miles would be a long distance; they were shocked to hear they each traveled 8.6 miles on their bike that day! This brought many jokes of sore legs and quotes like “I’m sweating in places no one should sweat!” and “I’m going to Walgreen’s to get some epsom salt and am going to soak then take a nap!”

Week one is accomplished and “Spoke Squad” is already on a roll!

More favorite moments from the girls….

“My favorite part was the gear thing. I like playing with the gears; it was fun. I learned that when you ride a mountain bike that you have to make sure your gear is in the correct spot. You cant have gears in little-little or big-big because that will make your chain stretch. When you ride you have to switch gears.”

“My favorite part about the biking was learning how to do different things, even though my mom and me use to always ride bikes. Some of the stuff was easy but half the stuff I didn’t even know about. Like doing the climbing, I knew how to do it but I just didn’t know what it was called or how to do the different positions.”

Stay tuned for more updates!

-Meagan Daniel

Girls On Wheels Program Leader