Trips for Kids Chattanooga has taken a variety of forms over the years, from a weeklong summer camp in partnership with Girls Inc. to a three-month after-school program with students from East Lake Elementary. But the goal has always been the same: to provide children with access to the area's abundant outdoor resources while teaching them valuable life skills through riding a mountain bike.
For its first three seasons, Trips for Kids Chattanooga was an earn-a-bike program that gave participants their own set of wheels at the conclusion of the three-month series if they went on a minimum number of weekly rides.
But program director Brenna Kelly soon discovered that it wasn't a free bike that drew most kids; they just wanted something fun to do in the afternoons. Plus, the majority of participants are seventh- through ninth-graders and already own their own bikes.
Now, kids are rewarded for their commitment to the program with bike accessories such as locks, bells and maintenance equipment. They also walk away with valuable skills such as teamwork, group dynamics, resiliency, accountability and environmental stewardship, Kelly says.
Established by the Southeast Conservation Corps as a local affiliate of the national organization Trips for Kids, Trips for Kids Chattanooga is financially supported and run by the corps. And SECC gets the benefit of introducing a younger, more diverse group of participants to its work in the outdoors, encouraging their desire to safeguard those opportunities through conservation.
SECC crews that work on projects such as trail maintenance are limited to ages 16-35, and Kelly, also the SECC founder and corps director, thought a bike program would be a good way to engage younger people in an SECC program. It also allows SECC to foster accessibility, inclusion and equity within SECC and Chattanooga's outdoor spaces.
"We're exposing these young people to some of the opportunities our crew members get, but through the simple joy of riding a bike" she says.
Partner organizations — which have included La Paz Chattanooga, Girls Inc., Lookout Mountain Conservancy and various schools and community centers — assist in recruiting participants who would be a good fit for and would be willing and able to commit to the program. This fall, SECC partnered with Soddy-Daisy Middle School.
Some partners contribute to the cost, but many cannot afford to do so, Kelly says.
By writing grants, SECC has funded a fleet of bikes, but Kelly must consistently rely on grants, donations and fundraisers to cover the other costs: food, insurance, transportation to and from trips, and soft costs associated with running the program. It's designed to be completely free to participants, as mountain biking can be very cost prohibitive.
"It's a labor of love," she says of the program.
She hopes to find a long-term partner and consistent funding, with a goal of providing diverse populations of youth access to outdoor recreation and potentially sparking their interest in future employment with the corps.
"We want to make land management employment more equitable and inclusive," Kelly says.
To learn more, visit southeastconservationcorps.org/trips-for-kids.