By AMY J. BARRY Special to The Day
Published June 22. 2014 4:00AM
Kids helping kids is a win-win when Bikes For Kids teams up with Teenzone For Boys to bring bicycles and new helmets to needy children.
Bikes For Kids, based in Old Saybrook, is a nonprofit charity that was founded in 1989 by the late Chuck Graeb of Old Lyme. To date, Bikes For Kids has donated 16,000 new and refurbished bicycles, mostly to kids and families in Connecticut - but as far away as Africa to help local villages get water and supplies more quickly. Schools, churches, social service and parks and recreation departments, and individuals contact Bikes For Kids with the names of kids in need. Prior to its ample new location, Bikes For Kids operated out of seven sheds in four towns, notes Dave Fowler of Ivoryton, the charity's president.
Teenzone For Boys is a new program to help teens suffering from low self-esteem develop a positive self-image. Teenzone gets recommendations of kids for the program from therapists and family services and directly from parents. Offered free to the teens, the program is funded by grants and private donations.
An offshoot of Teenzone for Girls, which was founded in Essex eight years ago by Victoria Taylor, each week the boys, who are mostly between 13 and 15 years old, touch on a different topic including nutrition, hygiene, etiquette, mindfulness, journaling and Internet safety.
But Taylor found that boys weren't opening up and interacting as easily as girls in the program.
Teenzone For Boys facilitator Jeffrey Sasso agrees.
"Boys are a little more reserved. Girls are more social creatures," he says.
So Taylor decided to approach Fowler to see if the boys could spend a session putting together new bikes for needy kids.
The collaboration was a big hit.
"They put together 18 bikes in one and a half hours," Fowler says. "I showed them what to do in a five-to-seven minute demo, turned them lose, and they were great."
"Boys are hands-on; they want to work with tools," says Sasso. "They clearly love the environment - doing something mechanical and giving back."
"It's good for their self-esteem to be doing something for someone else," Taylor says.
And getting the boys busy building bikes provides an opportunity to open conversations about the pressures in their lives - from physical changes to their bodies to peer acceptance.
Sasso, who has a background in special education says, "Just to be able to be kids and do something constructive and be accepted, even if they have special needs, levels the playing field. They learn to respect themselves and everyone else."
In yet another charitable connection that ties in with Teenzone, 18 bikes that the boys assembled will be given away at two events at Dodd Stadium in Norwich on June 26 and July 9. Bikes For Kids will present 50 bikes and new helmets - 25 at each ballgame - and the ballpark will give the families tickets to the games and food vouchers. The recipients will be kids from families recommended by Social Services in New London and Norwich areas.
Several of the Teenzone boys discussed what they liked about the venture with Bikes For Kids.
"I thought they were really good at helping the community out, and giving people ways to have better transportation and exercise," says Eli Briston. "It was fun building bikes, and knowing that they went to families and kids who really need them.
"It gives me a chance to get out of the house more, meet new friends and have fun," says Trent Bellavance. "It's a good experience - helping other kids is really cool and to learn to build bikes."
"This is a way to do something productive for the community and get the kids away from Internet and cell phones and gaming that requires interaction with people, not devices," Sasso says.
This summer Teenzone and Bikes For Kids plan to go on an organized bike ride and do a joint fundraiser. Taylor says she wants to get Teenzone For Girls involved in building bikes as well.
This current Teenzone for Boys series is supported by a grant from the Valley Shore Collaborative. Taylor says she will do Teenzone in any town she gets funding for.
"I would love to do it in New London," she says.