A Boston-based nonprofit aims to help boys and girls ages 10-17 develop self esteem and a sense of belonging by using a minibike as a motivational tool and a metaphor for personal development.
The National Youth Project Using Minibikes (NYPUM) began in 1969 and is supported by Honda Motor Co. Inc. and run by Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps. Approximately 35 programs nationwide – including municipalities, residential and school-, faith- and community-based – participate in the recreational program, which has an integral mentoring component that guides and supports youth to make good decisions at school, home and in their communities.
Participants include children on the autism spectrum; those with behavioral problems or who have been involved in the juvenile justice system; and children who have been affected by substance, physical or sexual abuse, said Mark Speller, director of NYPUM operations. Speller said the program also targets youth from military families and Native Americans.
The minibikes are used as an educational tool. “Both about learning how to ride – but also about learning how to learn,” Speller said.
“We use the dirt bike as a metaphor for life,” Speller said. “Dirt bikes require the rider to really think constantly, to react constantly, to assess constantly, to do critical thinking on their feet – literally – because the bike doesn’t do anything the driver doesn’t do.”
If a rider falls off the bike, the instructor might then relate the experience to life – such as by asking them, “Can you tell me about something that happened in your life when you made a bad choice and the consequences that came out?”
“They make an instant connection between the decisions they make in riding and how they improve or not, and the decisions they make in life,” Speller said.
Speller said youth seem drawn to minibike riding because it’s outside the ordinary from more traditional sports. “It’s not exclusive to any particular demographic or population,” he said.
Youth from both the residential and day programs at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps’ Lancaster (Mass.) residential treatment campus participate in NYPUM.
“It is a great motivator,” said Nick Edmands, campus adventure director. The program helps give kids the tools to stay on track behaviorally and educationally. Clinicians work with the youth to put together a “contract” of issues
they need to work on. “They get more riding time if they meet the goals of their contract,” Edmands said.
The contract can evolve as the child progresses. “They learn from their mistakes,” Edmands said.
NYPUM participants go through 21 lessons with a certified instructor before they are able to ride on the NYPUM trail and have group discussions about safety and consequences of making decisions. One of the lessons learned is about responsibility. “I tell the kids it’s a privilege to ride, and you really need to work on how to take care of the bikes and work with your group on learning how to improve on your skills with the bikes,” Edmands said.
The Walter G. Cady School at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a secure
facility for boys adjudicated as delinquent and committed to the Department of Children and Families, has participated in NYPUM for about a decade.
Chris Galle, the school’s NYPUM instructor, said between 30-50 students a year participate, and there is always a waiting list. The program is so popular that Galle even visits the school on his days off to ride with students.
“To be considered for the program, they have to have earned a certain level in the community and that level shows that they are trying to better themselves as far as how their socialization is going with their peers and the staff and their education,” Galle said.
Galle said the youth have incentive to do well, because they want to ride. “The motto is, ‘Be nice and work hard, and you get to ride,’” Galle said. “It’s very simple and it seems to be very effective.”
Youth agree to a set of rules and complete NYPUM’s 21 lessons. “To teach them to ride safely is our goal here,” Galle said. “When they are done, they are good riders. And they love it.”
The mentoring aspect of the program is important, as Galle said many of the young men come from families with absentee fathers and haven’t had the opportunity to spend some time with an older male doing something fun.
One graduate wrote a letter expressing that Galle was “like a dad” to him, and that when he’s at risk for getting into some trouble, he thinks about NYPUM and Galle’s words to always “Do what’s right.”
Another young man who had lived a transient lifestyle flourished in the program and during the last lesson, gathered his peers to salute Galle. The young man said, “Now, I’m finally a part of something.”
The program builds self-esteem and confidence. “I hear it all the time, ‘I didn’t think I could do this but I’m doing it’,” Galle said.
“These young men have a lot of potential. They all have great talents; they just haven’t been able to display them in a positive way. They’ve had to learn how to survive on the street for the most part,” Galle said. “This program is a great way for them to channel their energy and focus that energy in a positive direction.”