By Madalyn Howitt
Bicycles have been a hot commodity during the warmer months of the pandemic, giving riders the chance to be active and socialize outdoors.
For young people with already limited access to recreational sports and outdoor activities, however, having a bicycle can be even more valuable.
One Ottawa organization is working to get kids on bikes for exactly that reason. recLINK is an Ottawa Community Housing Foundation program that connects children and youth from low-income families to sports programming in the city. During the pandemic of course, opportunities for community sports have been sparse, so recLINK needed a different approach.
“We started to hear stories from community development staff about isolation and parents struggling to keep their kids connected and active,” said Sharon Jollimore, director of programs and innovations at the OCH Foundation. “At the same time, we started hearing stories of the struggles that many people were having in terms of acquiring products, whether it was a kayak or a baseball glove.”
After consulting with community partners, recLINK began exploring new ways to engage with families and encourage kids to stay active on their own, and landed on bicycles as equipment that the team could find and deliver to young people.
“Kids really need to get out, but in a safe way, and bikes were a great [solution] for that,” said Briar Gornall, communications and engagement coordinator with OCH.
Enter the “Hop on Bikes” plan.
The recLINK team partnered last summer with re-Cycles Ottawa, a not-for-profit and bicycle recycling and do-it-yourslf shop to help refurbish old and donated bikes. As part of the initiative, community developers then helped identify kids in targeted neighbourhoods who needed bikes, and distributed flyers about the program along with an attached measuring tape so that kids could be matched with a bike that was the right size for them. The program also included helmets and locks.
recLINK gave away its first round of bikes and accessories in October 2020, and delivered 31 more at the start of summer. OCH staff loaded up a big truck and brought them to neighbourhoods that included Strathcona Heights and Lowertown.
“We actually dropped them off at their front door, so they had everything they needed to use the bike right there and then,” said Traci Spour-Lafrance, manager of programs and operations at OCH. She shared how at both their fall and summer giveaways the reactions of the children were a joy to witness.
“We were going door to door to give out the bikes, but as time went on in the day, you would see more and more children who had received their bikes cycling all over the community, showing off their new bike, so that was really special,” recounted Spour-Lafrance. “There was one little girl that said, ‘oh my goodness, I’ve always wanted a pink bike with flowers on it’, and it was great to make her little dream come true without knowing,” she laughed.
“I would say it’s actually one of our most successful kind of responses that we’ve had from families, because there really was a need for it,” added Gornall. “You could see behind their masks that they were definitely smiling and really excited about it,” she said about the kids’ reactions to receiving their bikes.
Jollimore noted that for each event, over 90 people requested bikes, but the program only had 30 available, and with roughly 32,000 families living in OCH neighbourhoods, there is certainly a chance to reach out to many more.
“The inventory was quite limited, but now we’re getting phone calls from individuals and groups that want to donate inventory,” she said. “Between October 2020 and June 2021, there was a significant increase in requests for bikes, and I don’t foresee that changing.
“The fact of the matter is, it’s expensive to go and purchase a bike. We would love to find someone to sponsor this campaign. That would be phenomenal.”
She noted that through their program, recLINK can outfit a young person with a refurbished bike, a helmet, and a lock, and set them on their way for about $60.
A bonus of the Hop on Bikes program is that more families are now aware of the services they can access through recLINK once pandemic restrictions are lifted, added Jollimore.
Organizers hope that both recLINK and the Hop on Bikes program can continue to grow and get more kids involved in sports and physical activities.
“It’s so important for their mental and physical health, and just being connected with other people,” said Gornall. “That was the role that sports played in my life, and it shouldn’t be something that you need money to be able to participate in.”
Now may be a great time to dig through the garage and dust off any outgrown bikes or unused equipment.
“I do know that it’s made an impact,” said Spour-Lafrance of Hop on Bikes. “There already is discussion about how we can support another bike giveaway. Hopefully we can bring to give those out to children sooner rather than later.”
Editor’s note: In the interest of disclosure to readers – the Ottawa Community Sport Media Team (the not-for-profit organization that publishes the Ottawa Sportspage) works alongside recLINK to execute the Connecting Athletes of All Means to Paths in Sport Project. The CAMPS Project provides free sports opportunities in partner sports clubs’ programs to children/youth from low-income communities. More information is available at OttawaSportsCAMPS.ca.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the new Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.