The Story of How our Community Created a Chain Reaction.

Written by Heidi

August 27, 2021

For many Americans, owning and riding a bike is one of our fondest childhood memories. We recall countless stories of summer rides with friends, riding until we were so hot and tired that we dropped onto the cool grass under a tree for some shade, waiting for the dulcet tones of the ice cream truck to swing down the street. We reminisce about the freedom and sense of confidence that our bikes gave us. Unfortunately, owning a bike is a luxury that most children experiencing homelessness do not get to experience. That reality is what led to the dream of starting a “Chain Reaction” for the kids of St. Paul’s Center.

We submitted a grant request to Sunmark Credit Union to purchase bicycles, locks, and helmets for the children in our program.  To receive a bike, each child had to write a paragraph explaining why they would like a bike, agree to wear a helmet when riding, and participate in bike safety and bike maintenance classes.

Our hope in creating Chain Reaction was to provide the children we work with an opportunity to experience a childhood joy that many of us took for granted as kids. Through Chain Reaction, participating children will learn bike safety, increase activity levels, spend more time outside, improve general physical health, and increase self-confidence. The well-documented benefits of cycling include increased cardiovascular health, improved muscle mass, provide an outlet for stress, and increased self-confidence. According to the CDC, obesity rates in children in the lowest income brackets who are between 12-19 years of age is 18.9%. Cycling can burn 300 calories in an hour of moderate riding. A recent large-scale research project in Finland found that people who cycled for more than 30 minutes per day had a 40 percent lower risk of developing diabetes.

The grant was approved, and the staff at St. Paul’s Center set to work coordinating all the moving pieces required to meet the stipulations of the grant.  We quickly found allies in Deputy Chief Famiglietti of the Rensselaer City Police Department and Matt McGowen of the Freewheel Bike Fix. Together we planned a bike rodeo that was open to the community, and the Freewheel donated their time to complete free bike safety checks and basic bike repairs. Sunmark donated bike helmets, enabling us to use grant money for some great bikes. 

It’s been a month since the Chain Reaction community event, so we thought we’d pause and evaluate how the program is going.  The kids were all thrilled to receive bikes, and we took our first organized ride immediately after the event, riding to the shelter and our apartments as a group from the park.

Over the past month, there have been some trials and tribulations. We quickly realized that not everyone knew the safest way to brake when one of the teens hit the front brake hard and went over the handlebars. No worries – thanks to her brand-new helmet, she was fine. A faulty derailer sidelined one of the girls from riding for a little while. But our community rallied and the bike was fixed in 24 hours.

You might ask how we are doing on our stated goals. I asked the kiddos how riding their bikes has made their summers better. Here are some of the responses.

  • “I’m getting stronger, and my legs get me all the way up that hill now!” Jay, age 6, after riding up the hill toward Rensselaer City School.
  • “I like my bike because I can go to the library and get books to read this summer.”- Kacie, age 14.
  • “My bike is how I get my exercise. And now I eat healthier because I want to ride more.” Kayla. Age 12.
  • “My bike is so pretty! And, it’s fun.” Leah, age 5.
  • “Look at me! I don’t need training wheels anymore!” Darren, age 6. (As he careened down the driveway)!
  • “I feel like a normal kid. I can hang out with my friends and we can ride our bikes to the park or get ice cream. When I’m on my bike, I’m just having fun.”- Riley, Age 11.
  • “I think my muscles are getting bigger. Want to see them?”-Gary, age 6.

Chain Reaction started as a dream to give 10 kids a chance to experience one of the simplest joys of childhood while addressing the important issues of improving health, increasing activity levels, and elevating self-confidence.  With the help of our community partners, it looks like the program has been a success.

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