Richard Bennett, a head coach in the Utah League, wanted to start a team in the same underserved community where he provides health care. He gathered bikes, got some help, and got to work. The results were life-changing, for both him and the kids. Here is his story:
First of all, I am a dad. I have two kids who have been involved in NICA. One has been a recipient of the Trek-sponsored spirit award in the Utah league. His story has been shared a little, and NICA has changed (and I would argue in many ways saved) his life. My daughter has also been racing for three years, and I have seen a positive impact on her mind, body, and character. She is healthier, happier, and more engaged with her friends, school, and community through the positive impact of her coaches, GRiT, and the Utah league.
I am also a medical provider. I am a physician assistant and work in a federally qualified health center providing primary health care to an underserved community in southern Utah and northern Arizona. I have seen health disparities firsthand. I have seen and understand what it is like to grow up in a rural and underserved community. The kids in this community are faced with incredible challenges. The childhood poverty rate is well above the local and national average; the suicide rate is 15 times the national average; inactivity and chronic disease outstrip the region, state and national levels.
I have seen NICA's positive impact in many communities, and I wanted to bring that positive change to this community where I spend so much time. I know bikes aren't the only answer, but they are an answer and a tool to reach kids who would otherwise be missed by other outreach opportunities.
The task was daunting...
Led by Utah League Director Dalen Atack and the Region Six Director for the Utah High School Cycling League, Kristine Peterson – and helped by the incredible generosity of the Corner Canyon Bike Team, this project became possible. We were able to scrape together bikes, gear and registration fees to be able to have 24 kids register and have 20 active racers this season. This, in and of itself, could be labeled miraculous. But even more miraculous are the results we have seen in the kids we have been able to reach.
Our team consisted of a rag tag group of kids who, in some cases, had never really done more than learn to ride a bike. In April when I talked to Kristine Peterson, she said if I really wanted to get a team started in Creek Valley (Hildale, UT and Colorado City, AZ) she felt confident that we could make it happen. Having worked in this rural community tucked in amongst the vermillion cliffs that border Zion National Park, I knew the need in the area, but I didn't fully understand just how much a bike team could benefit the kids and families who live there.
The kids on the Creek Valley Team are amazing. They are strong, resilient, and many of them I would call "unbroken." I know there are similar stories all over the state. I know there are kids who struggle and don't really get to be kids except for those golden moments when they are riding their bikes. These are my kids too. They have stories; they have seen things, felt things and endured things that you and I may only imagine.
It turns out I am a soft-hearted guy. I cried when I saw how many kids showed up to our first practice, some in jeans and cowboy boots, others in shorts and tennis shoes. I didn't let them see my tears as they looked over the donated bikes I’d lined up along the Creek Valley Health Clinic wall. Dawn was only just breaking as they inspected and combed through the bikes as if they had just been given the keys to a sports car.
Many other things have made me shed a tear or two over the past several months. We had kids who panicked at the first race and didn't finish who then crossed the finish line of our second race smiling. We had kids who came across the line last, but were on their own bike that their parents had struggled to save for and buy. We had kids finish on the podium who just a few weeks earlier couldn’t get their tires to hold air long enough to even finish a race. We’ve had parents show up and support their kids while they ride and race their bikes and find a way to connect with them in a meaningful way. Triumphs, these were all major triumphs.
My heart also broke many times this season. I found out the real depth of food insecurity some of my riders face. I found out first hand just how tenuous some of their circumstances are. I cried in my truck after races, ashamed that I didn't fully understand, and I renewed my commitment to work even harder with these amazing kids.
I really am a softy... I wore my big sunglasses so no one would see my tears as I handed out medals. I had racers on the podium feeling the success of something they have ached for, something that deep down they feel like they are made for. These are kids who have all experienced hurt, and to see their small victory changed something in me. I cried most of the way home after a race, even having to pull over so I could sob for a minute. Some may say "it's just biking," but it isn't just biking. For some of these kids, it is a way to heal the hurt, to peel away the scars and to see the beauty underneath.
This NICA story is not finished. We have changed a few lives and changed the stars for the kids on our team this year. I am looking forward to another amazing season to come.
So, when I feel frustrated, overwhelmed and unsure, I just have to remember the "why."
Thank you, NICA, for the support, thanks for the community, thanks for structure, the training and the inspiration to get kids out on bikes. There is power in biking. There is power in community. There is power when we go beyond ourselves and see the potential in others.
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