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Urban Riders Meet Suburban Trails

A Springfield-based group takes children from D.C. on mountain-biking trips.

Wakefield Park's greens and blues are the colors of opportunity for children from urban backgrounds who take part in a mountain-bike day trip program.

"There are a lot of kids who never have the opportunity to see woods. The only grass they see is on a football field," said Pat Childress of Springfield, who founded the Washington, D.C., chapter of the national nonprofit Trips for Kids (TFK) organization with his wife, Julie, in December 2002. The organization seeks to provide mountain-biking trips and environmental education to youth from urban locales.

The program presents a perfect opportunity for Childress, an avid mountain biker who works for the Environmental Protection Agency and bikes to work several times a month, to put his love for the outdoors into action.

"It's taught me more about kids and life than 20 years at the EPA has," said Childress, who was encouraged to start the local chapter at the urging of a friend who had worked with the Salvation Army's Southeast Corps in D.C. In 21 months, the organization has sponsored 28 events, and this Sunday will sponsor a "Bike Swap" at Lee High School in Springfield. The event runs from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and will feature booths from bike stores like The Bike Lane in Burke, as well as individual vendors, selling bike gear at low prices. On Oct. 2, at 10:30 a.m., TFK-Metro DC will co-sponsor a ride at Accotink Park in Springfield as part of Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day.

AFTER CHILDRESS and fellow ride leader Ken Scott's first experience leading a ride with a group of children from Shaw-Eagle Village in D.C., they were convinced they had done the right thing in starting the nonprofit.

"We were all nervous. We didn't know how it would go. At the end of the ride, it was, 'When can we do this again?'" said Childress, who has led four more rides from the same group.

TFK-Metro DC works primarily with groups from churches, schools and summer recreation programs, among others. The organization provides transportation to bring the children, age 10-14, to a local park, usually Accotink or Wakefield, where their bikes, helmets and gear are waiting for them, along with a host of volunteers, enough to provide a 2-1, kid-to-volunteer, ratio.

One of those volunteers, Ann Villacres of College Park, Md., was also an anxious mom, as her 7-year-old son, Julian, embarked on a TFK-Metro DC ride at Wakefield Chapel Park in May.

"He was the smallest kid on the ride, the only one who didn't have gears on his bike," said Villacres, who noticed a change in her son's attitude following the ride.

"After that ride, he's ridden his bike every day after school. He jumps on his bike and rides around the block," she said. "When kids get together, they feel stronger as part of a group."

Rides usually get under way on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. After a light snack, the children are fitted to their bikes — TFK owns 22, nearly half of which were donated by outdoor companies REI and Trek— and start wheeling around to get accustomed to their gear.

"It's funny how quickly you can see the kids who have never ridden the bike," said Ann Mader, co-owner of The Bike Lane, and a member of the organization's board of directors.

"By the end of the day, they're riding around with their friends," she said.

The rides usually last close to an hour and a half, offering the chance for children to ride at their own pace and the leaders to bring up biking-related themes.

"The volunteers are asked to talk about what they know, and themes like overcoming obstacles, control and balance," Childress said. "A lot of the best subjects are the ones the kids bring up themselves."

Nature is also an important subject, and Childress noted his ride groups have spotted owls, deer and snakes.

This year, TFK-Metro DC has sponsored 13 rides, and is considering adding other outdoor-related activities like kayaking and hiking to their plate.