There’s something so magical about riding a bike that lots of people do it just for fun. Adults hop on bikes and race each other up the road. Friends get together on weekends and pedal through the woods. And kids never seem to get tired of riding in circles in the driveway.
In New Bedford, Massachusetts, Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.) rolls with this phenomenon by using bikes as vehicles to help kids learn. Their out-of-school programs center on bike-powered discovery and transformative learning experiences. During the pandemic, the value of these outdoor programs became very clear. As schools shut down or went online, Y.O.U. kids kept right on riding.
In response to the pandemic, Y.O.U. also partnered with Round the Bend Farm, where I work, to provide healthy food to local families. Round the Bend (RTB) would grow and prepare fresh food, and Y.O.U. would deliver it to local families. RTB Executive Director Desa Van Laarhoven named this project “Manifest Love.”
This October, Y.O.U. Executive Director Bernadette Souza invited the RTB farm crew to celebrate the season with a bike ride. Five of us arrived at a local park near the ocean, where we met Y.O.U. Program Director Linton Harrington. Poet and Director of the Bristol Community College Women’s Center Iva Brito arrived with her son Langston. (Throughout the season, Iva also distributed food shares to local families through Manifest Love.) As we sorted our snacks and gear, Bernadette pedaled up, got off her bike, and started dancing. “Caaan you feel the looooove ...” she belted out, waving her hands in the air.
To understand Bernadette’s vision for bikes and education, you need to know that she always brings the party with her. She cranks up music on her phone and asks you what you want to listen to. She dances into the room, then dances out. Her energy wraps you in a vibe so positive, you just can’t help but move your body too. She is like a mobile, bike-powered dance club.
The nine of us boogied in the park for a little bit. Then we strapped on our helmets, hopped on our bikes, and pedaled toward the bike path. As we rode, Bernadette explained the philosophy of the Y.O.U. programming and why they had so much success getting kids out riding.
“The first thing we do is assess, ‘What do you like?’” she said, her long braids flowing out behind her. “And we really listen to them! And once you do that, the buy-in is there. There’s no tussling and ‘I don’t wanna do this.’ We’re doing exactly what they want.”
"So many kids on their gadgets. On a bike, you have to look up."
The bike path turned toward the ocean, and we rode along the shoreline. “You get them out here, they’re looking up,” she said, sweeping her arm out toward the water. “So many people are looking down nowadays. So many kids on their gadgets. On a bike, you have to look up. See that water out there? It’s beautiful!”
We pedaled onto a long dock that extended over the water. The ocean glittered big and blue, and the sky opened into the horizon. She was right — out here, we did have to look up. Just a few miles outside the city, nature was mesmerizing.
As we pedaled toward the end of the dock, our bike tires crunched over piles of broken shells. “Well, sometimes you still have to look down,” Bernadette laughed. “Does anybody know how these shells got here?”
“Seagulls!” screamed Laurel, our newest RTB teammate. “Seagulls eat them!” Her excitement was so pronounced that I did a double-take. I imagined a seagull diving into the ocean, then launching into the sky with a mussel in its beak. From the highest point, it would drop the mussel toward the dock, then swoop down after it. It really was a very dramatic way to get breakfast.
“So this is the learning moment,” continued Bernadette. “We take kids out here, introduce them to their surroundings. And then we talk about birds, about nature. And we go back and read about it. Because they want to know about it! So we’re sneaking in literacy, we’re sneaking in physical fitness.”
We pedaled back toward the bike path and cut across a big field. Bernadette bombed down a hill and we all followed, laughing. We turned onto a street into town. After a few blocks, we stopped at the community garden where Y.O.U. kids learn how to grow vegetables.
“And then you’ve got Bob here,” said Bernadette, “Bob’s amazing! Bob’s gonna teach them science!” Bob waved to us from inside the garden, holding a squash. We all stopped and looked at the squash, which was yellow with a long, curly neck. He told us how the kids cultivate the vegetables and then bring them home to cook.
“Kids, once you get them on a bike, they’re in."
Bernadette explained how the garden became part of their educational program. “Kids, once you get them on a bike, they’re in. And then as you go and explore, they ask questions. One day we saw a garden bed with some flowers and some vegetables, and they asked, ’What is this, can we do it?’ That’s how we started the Victory Park Children’s Garden because they asked for it.”
“And some kids don’t have bikes,” she continued. “Some kids have a bike, but the chain is broken. And they say, ‘Can you teach me how to fix it?’ So now we do a bike mechanics and repair shop program because they asked for it. And we have bikes that we retire, and once the kids fix them up, they get the bike they worked on.”
We waved goodbye to Bob and hopped back on our bikes. We wound through town and stopped at more places along the Y.O.U. bike route. Linton talked about the ecology of each area and pointed out historical sites. Each time we passed someone, Bernadette yelled out a jolly hello. We stopped to chat with joggers and people sitting on benches. At one point Bernadette befriended two scuba divers just emerging from the ocean. Pedaling outdoors lent itself perfectly to social distancing. We were able to explore the community and meet new people, all from a safe distance.
“The kids, they’re out here, they’re safe, they’re having fun,” said Bernadette, as we cruised back to our starting place. “They’re bound to learn. You just sneak in all the learning.” Then she flipped on her phone, turned up the music, and we all got off our bikes and danced.