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Pedal Power Drives Health and Wellness Education in the Delta

May 30, 2017
Gary Vernon
CYCLE Kids teaches students in Helena-West Helena benefits of exercise and nutrition

Do you remember your first bicycle? Do you remember when your mom or dad removed the training wheels, gave you a gentle push and sent you off down the street, pedaling, balancing and concentrating until, finally, the wobbling stopped and you were riding on your own?

That first ride is often the fondest of childhood memories. In that moment, there is a sense of freedom and accomplishment. A challenge has been overcome. The world is suddenly a lot bigger and adventure awaits.

That’s why kids love bikes and it’s why, on a recent spring morning at the KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy in Helena, Arkansas, about 100 students were abuzz with excitement.

The group of third and fourth graders gathered with their teachers in the school’s gymnasium around boxes of unassembled bicycles. Decked out in orange t-shirts and armed with wrenches and enthusiasm, the kids got to work and within two hours had turned out 20 shiny, red two wheelers.

The "bike build” marked the official launch of CYCLE Kids, an educational program designed to promote active lifestyles among kids by introducing them to the joys and health benefits of bicycling. CYCLE Kids programs serve 3,600 kids annually in schools across the country – including California, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, New York and Massachusetts.

For eight weeks during their regular physical education class, students learn the fundamentals of biking – everything from the proper sizing for helmets to gear shifting and braking and how to ride safely in traffic.

Just as importantly, the kids get an education about how cycling and regular exercise can help reduce obesity and Type 2 diabetes, about healthy portion sizes and how nutritious foods are the most efficient fuel to generate pedal power. In other words, chips and soda won’t take you as far as fruits and vegetables.

Gary Vernon, Walton Family Foundation program officer, fits a student with a bike helmet.

“We see this as an opportunity to build some lifelong healthy living habits with kids,” says Todd Dixon, school director at KIPP Delta ELA. “Elementary school is a pretty pivotal time and opportunity to make kids aware of and build some healthy habits. The program was attractive to us because it is a really nice combination of teaching kids some skills around riding a bicycle with the nutrition components in the curriculum.”

The core CYCLE Kids messages are important for children anywhere to learn, but they are especially valuable in Helena, an economically distressed region in the Delta region of Arkansas. More than 25% of all youth in Phillips County – which includes Helena-West Helena – are obese, far higher than the state average.

Beyond the formal classroom studies, KIPP Delta ELA has formed an after-school bike club for the most avid students.

“In a community where there are not a ton of after-school activities for kids or parks that are in great shape, there is a really neat opportunity here for kids to be able to get more into cycling,” says Todd, a cyclist who bikes to work on most school days.

The enthusiasm with which CYCLE Kids has been received at KIPP Delta is music to the ears of Julianne Idlet, the program’s executive director. Idlet, a lifelong cyclist, founded CYCLE Kids in 2004 after reading and becoming alarmed about the skyrocketing rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes among American children, particularly those raised in poverty. She developed the program’s curriculum with faculty members at Boston University, where she is a visiting scholar. The poverty rate in Phillips County is 37%.

“The kids not only gain knowledge about health and wellness, but there’s also a lot of emotional development that comes out of the program – everything from confidence building to developing social skills,” says Julianne. “Because children work together in teams and support each other in learning how to ride the bikes, we see tremendous outcomes that go beyond just physical health, but also encompass the emotional health of children.”

While most of the students have ridden before beginning CYCLE Kids, Todd says a few kids this year had never been on a bike without training wheels. Many others had never ridden mountain bikes with multiple gears and hand brakes.

“For a lot of kids, getting used to using the gears to shift and learning the front and rear brakes has been a learning curve for them,” Todd says. “But they learn fast and they love it.”

Teachers take the CYCLE Kids students and bike club students on outings to the Mississippi River levee, nearby the school, to practice downhill riding. School and community leaders are studying the potential for dedicated bike parks with wooden raised bridges, rolling jumps and banked corners.

There is potential to have a rich cycling environment around Helena – it can be a place where kids grow up on bicycles, just as they do in so many other parts of the county.

“Biking was my freedom and exploration as a child. In summers we would just get on our bikes and ride,” says Julianne, who grew up outside of Boston. She remembers riding her bike out to Walden Pond in Concord, where she learned about Henry David Thoreau, and along the Revolutionary War trail. “It shaped me physically and intellectually, as well as emotionally. I really believe every child should have that same opportunity.”

The Walton Family Foundation provided funding to CYCLE Kids for the program, which served 154 students this year. Next year, the program is expanding to 230 kids. The foundation also helped launch CYCLE Kids at a second school, Eliza Miller Elementary, in Helena-West Helena.

Apart from being just plain fun, the CYCLE Kids program works because it becomes sustainable with the school.

The bottom line is that if you want to really create change, you have to create an environment where that will happen. By giving schools bike and helmets, providing teachers with a strong curriculum and textbooks and training them to deliver the program, you are implementing something that is sustainable.

“We provide the seed and encourage schools to do more with it – and they really have,” says Julianne. “The whole idea is that if you can get kids busy doing something fun, like riding a bike, maybe you can help these kids stick with their academics or overcome other things in their lives.”

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