The back door to Dawn Wilcox's classroom opened quickly as voices carried over the crush of little bodies anxious to find their new forms of transportation.
"Where's mine?" one asked, worried. "I don't see it."
"Oh, look at mine!" crowed another. "It's so awesome!"
The kids, all third-graders at Russian Jack Elementary, were finally laying hands upon a special gift, courtesy of some dedicated volunteers who put in hours and hours to see this day come to fruition.
Welcome to the evolution of a kid's first bicycle.
Do you remember yours? I do. My first bike was an orange banana-seat Schwinn with high, curved handlebars that took me all over the neighborhood with an aura of 1970s coolness that would be hard to emulate today. Bikes were not just toys then; we rode them everywhere, fastening playing cards on the spokes, best friends on the backseat and miles and miles on the big, round wheels.
Some of the students at Russian Jack Elementary, next door to East High School, don't often have the chance to ride bikes. An identified Title One (low-income) school, some kids who attend classes here might be in transition at home, living with extended family members or maybe in trailers where space is at a premium. Monthly paychecks go toward paying the utility bill and groceries; things like bicycles are "wishes" that don't always get fulfilled.
For other children, not having a bike is just a matter of not yet seeing a reason for it. Many of today's kids are usually driven to and from activities and outings. Parents want to know where youngsters are every second, and the freedom my pals and I were encouraged to embrace is not always offered today.
But that may change, thanks to the efforts of people like Wilcox and a cadre of folks who not only love biking, but the idea that independence leads to responsibility, especially when it comes to the outdoors.
'Not very many'
Enter Lael Wilcox, Dawn's daughter and a hardcore cyclist. Lael is a long-distance racer, successful to the point of breaking records in a sport that thrives on solitude, smarts and spirit.
Lael, 29, visited her mom's class in early March and showed students an REI-produced video of her adventures. The kids were impressed. Lael asked how many kids had bikes. Several raised their hands.
"I thought, hmmm, that's not very many," she said. So she asked how many kids didn't have bicycles. Many more hands went up.
For someone who considers her bike an extension of herself, this was disconcerting.
Lael mulled those responses, even as she raced in the White Mountains 100, an ultra-distance race across Interior Alaska on Easter weekend. Her parents were there too, cheering Lael on. Discussions about Lael's classroom visit came up frequently, says Dawn Wilcox. Eventually, an idea formed.
What if Lael and Dawn could find bikes for these kids, both for Dawn's students and kids from partner teacher Tina Lynch's class?
Quickly mobilizing, Lael returned to Anchorage and went to see her friend Kate Rodriguez, shop manager at Off the Chain, an Anchorage community bicycle collective located near Spenard Road. A non-profit coalition dedicated to increasing awareness of bike mechanics, bicycling and the spirit of community, Off the Chain was the perfect place for Lael Wilcox to start a movement.
Rodriguez, an avid cyclist herself, worked with the Wilcox family and others to find kid-sized used bicycles that could be refurbished quickly for the Russian Jack students. About 30 bikes were collected, with each carefully checked for any necessary repairs made before being labeled "good to go" and hung up outside the shop's back door to wait for the big day.
Dawn Wilcox, in the meantime, was prepping her students' families for the arrival of a bicycle.
"We sent home permission slips outlining the project and what we'd expect from the kids who received bikes," she said. "Each child had to sign a contract of commitment to caring for his or her bicycle."
Technicians buckle down
Each child would be gifted a bike as well as a lock and helmet, thanks to generosity of at-cost purchases at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage and small, fast fundraisers by family and friends of the Wilcoxes. Kids who already had bikes were eligible for locks and helmets, if needed, and the additional service of a bike repair or maintenance check. Dawn Wilcox said many of the kids who already owned bikes hadn't used them in months, and most were in need of repairs. At Off the Chain, a team of technicians, led by Rodriguez, Lael Wilcox and her partner, Nick Carman, got to work.
In just three weeks, the bikes were ready. Donations had come from coworkers, friends and the biking community at large. Hours had been spent tuning wheels and fixing tires. The students even made a field trip to the Off the Chain garage to see the progress and learn more about how to keep their bikes running. Everyone went through a short test to make sure they could ride, because some had never owned a bike before.
Finally, delivery day arrived. I was there to watch excitement mount to a near fever pitch as the kids found their bikes and walked them over to an empty lot on the school property. Stations had been set up to secure helmets, locks and learn more about bike safety.
I quizzed the kids on what they knew already.
"I need to wear bright clothes."
"Always stop on soft ground so you don't grind your tires down."
Tristan Mitchell, a kid with an easy grin who lives with his mom, dad and two little sisters in a cramped living space, said he'd outgrown two bikes already and his folks just hadn't been able to get him another, so focused were they on day-to-day living.
"This bike," he said, twirling the gears and adjusting the seat, "fits me just great, and I'm going to be able to ride to my friend's house now whenever I want."
Straddling her own purple bike that had been fixed and polished, Awuraama Law, a giggly girl with brown curls sticking out every which way from beneath her helmet, talked about reacquainting with her bicycle.
"I broke my bike a long time ago when I was riding with my uncle," she said. "But now it's completely working again and I just can't wait to ride it. Now the rest of my family needs bikes, so we can ride together."
It was barely controlled chaos for a while, with kids on bikes looping around the lot and hollering about their newfound form of exercise. Some stumbled on frames that were a bit big while others forgot to use brakes and crashed into the curb, looking up and laughing sheepishly. It'll take some time to get to know these bicycles and learn the ins and outs of riding in Anchorage, but Dawn Wilcox sees these small speed bumps as valuable lessons to a life lived outdoors.
"If my dream for this project comes true," she said, watching the swarm of pedaling kids circle the parking lot again and again, bells clanging and brakes squealing, "They'll be outside and active this summer. They'll ride to the playground, through Russian Jack (Springs Park) and maybe, just maybe, they'll bike to school."
Lael Wilcox, on the other hand, was more introspective about what the kids might do now that they had two wheels at their everyday disposal.
"Anything," she said. "I want them to figure out how to make that bike theirs. It's all them. I just got them started."
Awuraama Law showed me a glimmer of that spirit when I asked if there was anything she'd like the Wilcoxes to know about her and her bike, now that they were reunited.
"I'm free!" she shouted, slapping her hands onto the handlebars and pedaling off to join her friends, laughing out loud with the kind of gleeful joy we all should be so lucky to know.
Dawn and Lael Wilcox have only begun thinking about the next phase of this bike-gifting project. It doesn't even have a name, they said. But plans are in the works for future fundraising efforts, led by Dawn, since Lael is leaving May 1 for another big race called the Trans Am between Astoria, Oregon and Yorktown, Virginia.
She has 50 avid biking fans backing her up here in Alaska.
Erin Kirkland is author of "Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th state with Children", and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska's only family travel resource. Her second books is due out in 2017.
Bike to School Day coming May 4
A nationwide effort to promote bikes and physical fitness, Bike to School Day in Anchorage is slated for Wednesday, May 4. All Anchorage School District students are encouraged to ride their bikes, with more than 50 schools pledging as a community to have as many students and staff as possible hop on a bike and pedal to the classroom, rain or shine.
Students must wear a helmet to participate and should wear bright clothing to be visible to traffic. Anchorage School District suggests kids use a Safe Route To School, designated by a map provided on the Municipality of Anchorage Traffic Department web page.
On Saturday, April 30, students and parents are invited to a Bike Safety Check and Carnival 1-3 p.m. at The Bicycle Shop, Dimond store, 1801 W. Dimond Boulevard. Technicians and safety experts will be on hand to give bikes a checkup, fit helmets and offer tips for safe riding in Anchorage.