On Tuesday, October 1st, our friends at I Challenge Myself are hosting an awards party at the Greenwich House, with wines provided by T. Edward Wines. To learn more about this nonprofit organization that brings bikes (and more!) to high school students in the Bronx and in Upper Manhattan, we reached out to Ana Reyes, the organization's founder. Tickets for the event can be purchased here, and will directly benefit the students in the Cycling Smarts program, which is also supported by the GranFondo New York. Thanks Ana!
- On October 1, you're hosting a cocktail reception to honor Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Alex Ostroy of NYVelocity for their support (where proceeds will go to benefit the Cycling Smarts program). How have both men been involved with I Challenge Myself?
Alex has been supporting I Challenge Myself since we launched our program in 2005. He’s brought in over $50,000 to our programs. He started by organizing a photo shoot for a bike calendar with the proceeds going to I Challenge Myself. He followed that up by organizing a fundraising bike ride with George Hincapie in 2008 and a fundraising conversation and dinner with Greg LeMond in 2009. He is always looking for ways to help I Challenge Myself and understands that as a small nonprofit we struggle to fund our programs. Our operating budget this past year was $127,000 and so we continue to be understaffed to support growth and expansion. Alex is really one of the most selfless people I know and we are thrilled to honor him for all he has done to make Cycling Smarts available to NYC kids.
He was one of our first supporters from within the cycling community. People, including other cyclists, thought we would never get 14 or 15 year old kids to ride 100-miles in one-day. They were quick to point out all the obstacles. Alex didn’t do that, he simply asked what he could do to help. He’s someone who I trust to give me advice even if it sometimes is not what I want to hear.
We were awarded our first City grant through the Manhattan Borough President’s Manhattan Community Grants program in 2012-2013. The grant process is very competitive and is unique because of the transparency of how grantees are selected. Grants are awarded based on decisions of an independent panel of experts, community members and City Council representatives. We are incredibly grateful to Mr. Stringer and his administration for the opportunity to participate in this very competitive grant application.
It means a lot to get funding from a City agency and especially a grant like the Manhattan Community Grants because decisions are made include community members.
Both Alex and Mr. Stringer understand that what I Challenge Myself is trying to do, goes beyond getting kids on bikes. They understand that at its core I Challenge Myself is helping kids realize that Challenges = Changes.
- What an amazing program to promote health and fitness through cycling to students in NYC who stand to benefit academically and socially as well. As the founder of I Challenge Myself in Feb. 2005, can you tell us about the inspiration behind the program and how it began?
The inspiration for I Challenge Myself came from my participation in the 2000 Boston-NY AIDS Ride. I saw an ad for the ride in the Village Voice and remember thinking that this sounded like a good way to challenge myself and also to raise money for a cause that was close to my heart. At that time I needed something to re-energize me. A very dear friend of mine is living with AIDS. The ride was an opportunity to do something for myself and others. The ride was 286-miles in 3-days from Boston to NYC.
I had not been on my bike since junior high school so this was a very ambitious goal for me. I didn’t have a bike so I went out and bought a hybrid Mongoose at my local bike shop. I actually ended up putting clip pedals on that Mongoose and realize now just how silly that must have looked. Our first training ride was in Central Park and I didn’t know how to use the brakes and ended up running the bike into a parked horse and carriage. I thankfully only hit the carriage so no harm to the horse.
I participated in training rides for 2-3 months and improved. I live in Washington Heights and during training rides I started noticing the kids in my neighborhood riding their bikes. I noticed that they were only riding in the neighborhood but I never saw them cross the GW Bridge that was so close and the gateway to so many amazing trails. I found this very interesting and just kept thinking why don’t they just go over the bridge, it’s so much better than riding in the City. I’m a former high school teacher and was working on high school reform initiative at the time so I couldn’t help but notice this.
At the same time the growing obesity epidemic started making headlines and provided yet another reason to create I Challenge Myself.
In September I reached my goal of completing the Ride without any SAG support. I guess the idea really occurred to me right after completing the ride. I was filled with an incredible sense of accomplishment and pride for having completed something that was very physically and mentally demanding. I started to think about what a similar experience could do for kids while they were still in high school. I understood why people run marathons, climb mountains; things that for most people seem impossible: I think part of it is that these experiences really push you to re-think what is possible.
I simply wanted to recreate a similar experience for kids who like myself grew up in poor neighborhoods. I wanted them to realize that they are capable of accomplishing so much and that many times the biggest obstacle standing in the way is their own fear and limited perception of what they can accomplish. I wanted them to realize that training for and riding that 100-mile ride to serve as a symbol for life: the possibilities are limitless but we need to have goals, work hard, persevere in the face of challenges and be a team player. I really truly believe that challenges are opportunities to learn and grow if you make that decision.
- Can you describe how the program works within the four schools that you partner with, and do you foresee its expansion?
We provide partner schools with a fleet of 15-25 bicycles and related supplies, storage equipment and cover bike maintenance costs. The bikes remain at the school for students to use with their coaches/teachers on organized rides. PE and content area teachers from participating schools run the Cycling Smarts class and I Challenge Myself provides $9,000 for the year to cover 2 teachers’ stipends for out of school time program activities. We organize the fitness challenges—Century Ride and Winter Fitness Challenge-- and celebratory recognition events, coordinate bike maintenance repairs and recruit and screen volunteer coaches. Principals include the class as an elective in their school schedule, cover the teachers’ salaries for activities that fall within regular school hours and provide meeting and fitness space for program activities.
We are waiting to hear back on a grant proposal that would allow us to expand within our existing schools by piloting the Cross Fitness Challenge program as a spin-off of the Winter Fitness Challenge. The Winter Fitness Challenge serves as the end of fall semester challenge that allows Cycling Smarts students to display the progress they have made through their program participation. The Winter Fitness Challenge is made up of 5 stations that each run for 25 minutes: 2 Spin stations; 1 Sprint relay station test physical endurance; Health Jeopardy Station tests students’ knowledge of nutrition, physiology, bike safety; and Navigation Station where students demonstrate their ability to use a map. The spin off Cross Fitness Challenge program would not include cycling but would include core elements: cross fitness training, opportunity to challenge yourself, reflection and goal setting, career exploration and college exposure and nutrition education. We would work with PE teachers at the schools to develop the Cross Fitness Challenge.
As we explored the best way to expand we realized that it would be best to expand at existing schools rather than to additional schools. We were hearing from principals that our program was great but only serving 2% of their student population. We realized that we would not be able to meet principals’ demand to serve more students through the Cycling Smarts program alone. There are limitations in terms of space to securely store bikes and capacity at each school or within I Challenge Myself to lead additional Cycling Smarts classes at each school. We recognized the potential for reaching more students at each school and working towards systemic improvements to PE in NYC schools by bringing the Cycling Smarts, Summer College Bike Tour and Cross Fitness Challenge programs to partner schools. Offering all three programs will allow I Challenge Myself to serve three times as many students with the potential through the Cross Fitness Challenge program to reach even more students in a more cost effective way than just focusing on the cycling programs.
We should know by early October whether we were awarded this grant. If we get the grant and we get this right, the idea is to then be in a position to expand to additional schools with these 3 programs.
- Have any of your students gone from learning how to ride a bike to completing a century ride? If so, what's that like?
Absolutely, each year there are a number of students who have never been on a bike. I think these students are super brave for putting themselves out there at their age. They are understandably scared of riding in traffic. The program includes initial drills to get kids comfortable on a bike and avoidance drills to help them react to hazards of the road—opening car door, pedestrians, kids, etc. They get a lot of support from other students who are returning to the program and are more skilled cyclists and of course the coaches.
I remember David who joined Cycling Smarts his junior year of high school at the George Washington Educational Campus. I was visiting the students and saw David by himself trying to balance on the bike in the field while the other students were ridding around the track. I asked the coach what was going on and she explained that David was just learning to ride and he was not ready for the more advanced drills. After the class I spoke with David and learned that he had joined the class because he heard about the class from a former student and felt that the program would allow him to challenge himself physically and athletically—something he had never done before. He also admitted to feeling sluggish from the large amounts of junk food he was eating and realized it was time for him to get healthier. David told me that his achievements thus far had been academic—very high SAT scores (in 9th grade), 4.0 GPA, honors, etc. I remember thinking one that David was very brave for challenging himself in such a way and also worried that he would drop out of the class.
David not only remained in the program he returned for a second year of Cycling Smarts last year and graduated this past June and was awarded a full scholarship to Skidmore College.
We recently posted a very moving essay on our website written by Kirsy, a student at East Side Community HS, one of our partner schools. She starts her essay with the following: “Can one thing change you forever? I am not sure, but I do know that over the course of this semester cycling with I Challenge Myself has changed me into a more positive and healthy person.” I encourage readers to view Kirsy’s essay on our website (pictured right below) and clicking on the Challenges = Changes tab on the home page.
We find that while NYC has become a more bike friendly city, we have found that the students we serve do not have access to bikes and opportunities to participate in organized bike rides. Most don’t own a bike or live in neighborhoods where they or their parents feel it is unsafe to ride on their own. The majority of kids who join our program initially are unable to make it through a 3-mile bike ride, a 15-minute spin session, 5-mile run, and some have never left their borough let alone NYC. For many, the medal they receive in recognition of having completed the Winter Fitness Challenge or Century Ride is sometimes the first time they have been publicly recognized for their accomplishments and is an immense source of pride.
- The Summer College Bike Tour program is a brilliant addition to the Cycling Smarts program. How did you come to develop it and do you think you'll be able to expand it in the future?
It actually came about as a result of a need we were seeing to contribute to efforts at partner schools to get students college ready. We recognized that we could use cycling to get kids to start thinking about and excited about college. Our former Athletic Director happened to work at a large organization that provided college preparatory programs before starting to work at I Challenge Myself and he was really able to develop the program.
The Summer College Bike Tour was designed to provide students who have recently completed the Cycling Smarts program the opportunity to follow that 100-mile bike tour with a multi-day bike tour that also exposes students to college options available to them. Many of our participants are first generation American and will be the first in their families to attend college. This unique exposure can make a huge difference in getting students to aspire, focus and prepare for college and life after high school.
The College Bike Tour was piloted in 2011 as a 10-day program in July structured in two parts: (1) 5-day college preparatory sessions in NYC consisting of training rides in the morning and college preparatory in the afternoon; and (2) 5-day bike tour to colleges in the NY Area: Syracuse, Colgate College, SUNY Oneonta and Marist College. Each visit consists of a guided campus tour and meetings with financial aid and admissions counselors. Funding limitations prevented offering the Summer College Bike Tours in 2012 and 2013. We will be hosting a Summer College Bike Tour in July 2014. The 2 rising seniors graduated in June 2012; one received a full scholarship to Skidmore College and the other a partial scholarship to NYU. The pilot Tour served 5 students who traveled with staff to Syracuse and returned to NYC from Marist College in the SAG van.
We are modifying the 2014 Summer College Bike Tour to accommodate 12 students. Students and two staff members will travel via Greyhound bus to Syracuse while one staff member drives a 16-passenger van containing the bikes and support equipment and snacks/water to Syracuse and serves as support vehicle. Once at Syracuse students and staff will ride to each of the schools. Marist College is the last school on the Tour and students and staff will take Metro North in Poughkeepsie back to NYC.
Another way we plan to expand the College Bike Tours is to integrate the visit to 1-2 local colleges within the Cycling Smarts program.
Have any of your students yet participated in the Gran Fondo New York? Do you think any will join next year?
Not to my knowledge. You have to be 18 years or older to participate in the Gran Fondo and the 95% of our students are under 18. We can certainly make the kids aware of the Gran Fondo so that they can participate if they so choose.