August 14, 2015
Five bikes and one women's recovery home -- those are the two ingredients that led to the creation of Kristin Gavin's biking program for women in transition, Gearing Up.
The program serves Philadelphia women who've formerly been incarcerated, have been subject to abuse or have a history of addiction. The goal: Use the social connectedness that comes with group-biking as a means of encouraging positive change in their lives.
Gavin came upon the idea while wrapping up her master's program for sports psychology at Temple University in 2008 when she began teaching a fitness class at Interim House Philadelphia. Through that experience, she recognized the emotional and social impact that physical activity had on her students; wanting to spread that impact, she called up Advanced Sports International and was gifted five free bikes to launch Gearing Up.
Since then, Gavin said, 750 women have been served by the program, with 200 on track to be served this year alone. Women of all ages gather in groups of eight to 15 three mornings per week to ride together, traverse communities and experience the kind of routine that lends itself well to rebuilding a life -- everything from lifestyle changes to employment.
Below, Gavin explains just how biking might set the foundation for employment, what makes Philadelphia a snug fit for the program and what she's up to this weekend.
What do you think is most misunderstood about some of the incarcerated women you interact with?
That they deserve to be incarcerated or that they are a danger to society. The lives and circumstances of so many women who are incarcerated are wildly complex and complicated -- often women's stories challenge my own preconceived notions of who ends up in jail. Many of the women we work in Philadelphia County are pretrial, can’t make bail and are in need of supportive services more than “corrections.”
Of all the women you’ve encountered with this program, whose story has impacted you the most?
That's a tough one. There is no one story. Each woman we have pedaled with has a unique and different story, although nearly all are traumatic and, at times, horrific. What has had an impact on me about so many women that I have met is the unwavering optimism and ability to experience joy that they possess. Most women we meet are at rock bottom -- yet they have the conviction to rise early, fill a water bottle, start the day with a bicycle ride and almost always share a good laugh and a hug. My faith in humanity is restored on nearly every ride with Gearing Up ladies – and I am constantly reminded of our resiliency as human beings!
How can bikes lead to employment?
Well, I can't think of one issue that bicycles can't solve. So employment, that's easy!
It’s not so much that riding a bicycle will give someone the skills to be employed -- although that has been the case a few times with Wash Cycle Laundry – but rather the experiences one has while riding a bicycle can influence their belief in themselves to succeed. Many of the women we work with at Gearing Up have recent histories of social isolation and, quite frankly, failure. Our program facilitates bicycling as a way to experience social integration and success, influencing one’s motivation and belief in their ability to succeed in other ways in life, such as applying for a job and showing up to work each day, just like they consistently showed up for an early morning bike ride.
The best route to go biking in Philadelphia. Go!
Starting from Blue Bell Hill park, ride a counter-clockwise loop of the Wissahickon trails -- on a single-speed, of course -- to the Lincoln Drive trail before dropping into the Belmont. It's easy to string together more than three hours of great single-track in this amazing city we live in! If you go early enough you might get lucky and hear the bagpiper practicing in the Wiss and have a run-in with Walt in the Belmont.
What are you up to this weekend?
My husband and I are loading our mountain bikes on the roof of our car, and driving due west with our two dogs to Leeper, Pennsylvania, to spend the weekend with his parents at “camp." With any luck, we will get there without any of the dogs getting car sick and spend countless hours hanging out with his parents while squeezing in a ride or two on the trails. There will certainly be a campfire and s’mores.