In Gearing Up, Bicycling Is The Great Equalizer

By Ronnie Polaneczky
Philadelphia Daily News.

I’M OBSESSED these days with Philly stories about how one person’s lone decision, made in a moment of compassion, can change lives.

Take Anne Mahlum. In her teens, she started running to deal with the stress of living in a household beset by addiction.

Running gave her clarity and strength.

One day in 2007, she was on a jog through Center City, wondering what her life’s purpose was. When she ran past a group of homeless men outside a shelter, she realized it was time to stop running past the men and start running with them.

Thus was born Back On My Feet, Mahlum’s nonprofit, which uses running to help the homeless change how they see themselves so they can make changes that will lead to employment and independence. The program has expanded to 11 other cities, helping thousands of men and women find work and housing.

Then, there’s Jennifer Leary. She’s a former Philly firefighter and Red Cross emergency responder who helped out at a two-alarm fire in Center City a few years ago, where two dogs and a cat had been injured. Their owners screamed for help but there was no organization on hand to help the injured animals. So Leary used her own vehicle to rush the pets to Penn Veterinary Hospital, where they later died.

After a second such event in 2011, Leary created Red Paw, which would work in conjunction with Red Cross responders to provide emergency services to animals during disasters. To date, more than 1,000 animals have been served.

Both Mahlum and Leary have been feted by the CNN Heroes program, which honors ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. Although Mahlum, upon accepting her CNN award, played down the word “hero.”

Where this country has gone wrong, she said, is that “we think that treating others — homeless, black or white, rich or poor — with respect and kindness is heroic.”

Well, I have a future nominee for CNN: Philly’s Kristin Gavin.

In 2009, she was working on her master’s degree in exercise and sports psychology when she began teaching fitness classes at Interim House in Mt. Airy.

Interim provides residential and outpatient recovery services for women, many of whom are transitioning from incarceration and are court-ordered to receive treatment there.

Transitions are what life’s about, obviously. They happen when we move from something we know well to something we may not know at all.

We go from being single to being married. From being childless to being a parent. From resigning from one job to starting a brand new one.

Those are the good transitions. We may not know what’s coming next, but hope infuses the changes that are upon us.

Then, there are the hard transitions, the free-fall ones that feel bottomless.

We go from having a spouse to being widowed. From parenting a child who’s doing fine to parenting a teenager who’s in trouble.

From being employed in a job that keeps food on the stove to being out of work, not knowing how we’ll even keep the burners lit.

And then there’s the transition that women at Interim House are experiencing: The transition from being incarcerated to being out in the world again.

Talk about feeling scared. Talk about feeling marginalized. Talk about needing help that others are reluctant to give. Because not many people feel compassion for folks dealing with the consequences of their own bad decisions.

For the women of Interim House, moving successfully out of prison and into real life relies greatly on their own fortitude.

But it’s hard to muster bravery and confidence when you’re feeling fear, shame and trepidation.

Which brings us back to Gavin.

She’d been researching the impact of exercise on anxiety and depression, so she hoped her fitness classes at Interim House would help women find their inner grit. But the the women weren’t exactly eager to break a sweat.

“They’d see me arrive and be like,’I’d rather work in the kitchen, thanks,’ and kind of scurry away,” laughed Gavin, 34, a tall, cheery athlete who exudes friendliness and good humor. An avid biker, she started thinking that what the women needed was to experience exercise in the outdoors, where it doesn’t feel like something to be endured.

Rather, it could feel like freedom. Like possibility. Like fun.

Kathy Wellbank, program director at Interim House, was nursing the same idea. One day, she said to Gavin, “I’ve been thinking we need to get the women on bikes.”

“Me, too!” said Gavin, who immediately emailed Pat Cunnane, CEO of Glenside’s Advanced Sports International, a distributor of bicycles. She explained that she wanted to start a bike-riding program for Interim’s clients, and asked for five bikes — gratis.

Within an hour, Cunnane replied with a single question: Where should he ship them?

And thus was born “Gearing Up,” a nonprofit that runs group bike rides for women three times a week out of three recovery houses in Philadelphia. The program also conducts regular spinning classes at Riverside Correctional Center, Philly’s women’s prison on State Road.

In Gearing Up, bicycling is the great equalizer between those who are doing OK and those who are trying to be.

When Gearing Up’s clients and volunteer riders pedal and sweat up a hill together, they’re sharing a common challenge. When they coast down, a common release. When they glide along together, they have each other’s back in the healthiest and most supportive way. And when they get back home, they’ve shared a wholesome experience of adventure.

And here’s the cool part: When women have accumulated 150 miles on their group rides, Gearing Up gives them a bike of their own so they can continue to enjoy the everyday dignity, freedom and independence of getting where they need to go with just the push of a pedal.

Of respecting their limits with the squeeze of a brake. Of feeling thrilled on the downward coast. And of feeling contented on the flat stretches.

Who knew biking was so much like life?

Since 2009, Gearing Up has grown from one inspired woman’s idea to a program with a full-time staff of six and 45 volunteers who run 12 group rides per week, plus three weekly classes at Riverside. And 100 of its 700 participants have earned bikes.

“It’s an amazing program, and Kristin is just terrific — she has so much energy,” Prison Commissioner Louis Giorla told me Thursday night at Gearing Up’s annual fundraiser.

An early and enthusiastic supporter of the program, Giorla joked that he felt more excited to be at the fundraiser than he felt meeting Pope Francis, who last month visited Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

That’s some mighty praise.

I was emcee for the night’s celebration, held at The Vesper Club on Boathouse Row, where a soft breeze wafted off the river and through the hall, fluttering tablecloths and lifting spirits. As I looked over the crowd, it was impossible to tell who was a Gearing Up client and who wasn’t.

Programs like Gearing Up remind us that we all want the same things. Dignity, independence, belonging and — when we screw up — a second chance.

Gearing Up gives its women just that, one ride at a time.

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