WashCo BTC - Supporting Kids & Communities

By Amy Vance

For years, nine-year-old Jose Vargas watched friends speed by on their fast and fancy wheels while he lagged behind on his older sister’s hand-me-down “girly bike.” Uninspired to study and do homework, he was also struggling in school. That is until the Washington County Bicycle Transportation Coalition (WashCo BTC), a non-profit bicycling advocacy group, met with Vargas and his teachers in October 2010 and came to an agreement. Should Vargas show improvement in school, finishing his schoolwork every day for a month, he would receive a new bicycle. Motivated, he worked hard, completing every assignment. He began reading to his parents, whom, even though they do not speak English, were proud of his accomplishments and supported his progress. Friends and teachers also encouraged the turn-around and applauded his efforts. Delighted, Vargas went to the coalition’s community bicycle center at the end of the month and selected a new bike. A black Nishiki was presented to him along with a certificate of achievement in front of his peers and supporters. Proudly taking a victory lap, the young boy embarked upon a new life as a dedicated student who was no longer left in the dust.

Hal Ballard teaching a group of children the rules of the road. Photo courtesy of All About Bikes Photo courtesy of All About Bikes

Hal Ballard teaching a group of children the rules of the road.

WashCo BTC works with kids like Vargas and their families to promote cycling as a viable mode of transportation in Washington County, Ore. First known as “Squeaky Wheels,” the organization initially formed as a chapter of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) in 1998. They broke off in 2005 and became an independent agency after deciding to focus on issues more specific to Washington County, some of which did not align with BTA’s policies. Today, they serve 13 cities west of Portland, working to promote bicycle education and rider empowerment with the help of 250 active volunteers.

Retaining the ultimate goal of putting more people on bikes, WashCo BTC continues to work with the BTA on political advocacy issues, taking advantage of available resources. On a smaller, more personal scale, the organization created an additional advocacy group to spread awareness of bicycling benefits and proper riding etiquette. Many members volunteer their time on committees that work closely with Hillsboro Parks and Recreation, encouraging greater appreciation and integration of bicycling within the community. Partnering with B.L.A.S.T (Bringing Leadership, Arts, & Sports Together), a Hillsboro Park and Rec. department after school program held at 14 elementary schools in Washington County, WashCo BTC spends hours with students teaching proper riding techniques, the basics of staying upright, and proper brake usage.

Beginning this past June, volunteers have been holding clinics at Hillsboro’s Tuesday Marketplace, a weekly summer festival and downtown farmer’s market. Preston Tyree, director of education at the League of American Bicyclists, commends WashCo BTC efforts in the clinics, claiming, “They are reaching a lot of people and getting kids on bikes, and that is critical.”

The League of American Bicyclists’ nationally recognized Smart Cycling program is an integral component to WashCo BTC’s educational approach. Based on the League’s new book, Smart Cycling: Promoting Safety, Fun, Fitness, and the Environment, the curriculum covers everything from how to choose the right bike to rules of the road and group riding. Five active League certified instructors work with WashCo BTC to teach a variety of classes including: Cycling Skills for Parents, Cycling Skills for Kids, Safe Routes to School, Commuting and Group Riding Clinics, Traffic Skills 101 and 201, Share the Road (for Motorists), Kids I (for Parents), and Kids II (Traffic Skills 101 for Children). Each course is fee-based, usually priced at around $50 per hour. Schools and athletic clubs have shown the greatest interest, asking the organization to come in during assemblies or events to interact with students and members.

Hal Ballard, executive director of WashCo BTC, explains, “We work very hard to help the community understand the value and importance of the classes.”

Furthering the hands-on experience, WashCo BTC opened the Frans Pauwels Memorial Community Bicycle Center in 2008. The Pauwels family owned a bike shop in Beaverton for 40 years, which served as an essential gathering place for cyclists. When the store closed, all of the equipment, tools, and supplies were donated to the WashCo BTC. With the aid of two considerable private donations, totaling $15,000, and a grant of $22,500 from the Meyer Memorial Trust, they were able to build a 1,500 square-foot center and its new bike recycling shop in Aloha, Ore.

The facility has served as a wonderful contribution to the vision of the organization. Working with the Transportation Solution by Cycle program, volunteers refurbish and recycle donated bikes and safety equipment to be sold in the center’s store, providing many underprivileged families with the chance to get involved in biking at a low cost. Volunteer Tuesdays (which changed this past June to Volunteer Thursdays) and “Support Our Troop” Scout Night are also held at Frans Pauwels, bringing together diverse groups of people to learn about and work with bicycles. This program launched in December 2009 when WashCo BTC agreed to sponsor Boy Scout Troop 721. Maureen Wolf and Christine Bruce, mothers of two troop boys, are very pleased with the impact it has made on their kids.

“Hal goes above and beyond,” they comment. “He is very open to working with youth and is really getting them involved as ambassadors for bicycling and spreading bike awareness.” Now many troops, boys and girls alike, come to repair bikes, help teach the clinics, and earn their badges.

Thanks to the Pauwels family, the shop is well equipped. Photo courtesy of All About Bikes Photo courtesy of All About Bikes

Thanks to the Pauwels family, the shop is well equipped.

Every holiday season WashCo BTC puts on the Adopt-A-Bike drive, asking residents to purchase a recycled cycle for someone in need, like young Jose Vargas. A mere $50 pays for a bike, helmet and lock for each child. Over the years they have donated more than 600 bikes and 1,500 helmets. Their efforts are directed toward children in foster care with the help of the Foster Closet organization; women of Adelante Mujeres, an empowerment group for Latina women dependent upon their husbands, brothers, or fathers to transport them; and members of Community Vision, a non-profit organization devoted to creating housing, transportation, and employment for disabled individuals and their families. An average of 50 kids and adolescents are equipped with a bike each season.

For the past three years WashCo BTC has also hosted Tour de Parks, their most popular fundraising event that spans several of Hillsboro’s city parks. Designed for families, the tour features an enjoyable, relaxed ride, finishing amidst the festivities of the city’s community festival, Celebrate Hillsboro. Participants may choose to ride through two, six or all ten of the area’s parks. The longest route, Le Grande Tour, covers 63 miles, and travels from Hillsboro Campus to the heart of downtown. Registration fees benefit Gearing Up, a non-profit organization helping women with drug addictions or abusive relationships transition into healthier lifestyles by using bicycling for safety, transportation, and personal growth. Each summer nearly 400 people come to ride and celebrate. The fourth annual event will be held on Saturday, July 23, 2011.

Going above and beyond their mission, WashCo BTC plays an active role in the Hillsboro 2020 Vision and Action Plan. The plan was adopted in May of 2000 with the goal of transforming Hillsboro into a city that every resident is invested in and proud to call home. WashCo BTC has committed to be a lead partner and, as described in the agreement, “coordinate with regional partners to create and promote a bicycle transportation network connecting population, transit, and employment centers and other regional destinations.” The organization also supports additional features of the plan that focus on expanding the Safe Routes to School program, a bike rack policy, a Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and the identification and mapping of existing pathways for cyclists and pedestrians. Most of the improvements will not begin until later this year or the beginning of 2012 due to a lack of funding.

In the upcoming years, WashCo BTC aspires to expand by relocating the bicycle center to a more accessible location in Hillsboro and developing additional satellite shops in some schools and the local Latino marketplace. They also hope to hire an intern to continue expanding clinics and partnerships. Right now the organization is applying for grants from ACTS Oregon and Northwest Health Foundation to increase funding for future projects.

As Ballard puts it, “I didn’t invent the wheel, but I am working to keep the tire pressure up.” WashCo BTC is not the first of its kind, but the organization is doing all they can with what they have to make a difference in the lives of others — one bicycle at a time.

The impact made on young Vargas continues to be seen today. His grades are improving consistently and he has branched out in school, participating in after school math and homework help sessions. He also rides his bike every day, rain or shine.

To get involved or learn more about the organization’s programs, visit www.washingtoncountybikes.org.

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