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Can minibike rodeos help give kids direction?

Three-day challenge encourages at-risk youths to take a right turn

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / July 30, 2011

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LANCASTER - And now, a few good words about at-risk youths and minibikes.

In June, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino moved to crack down on motorized bikes in the city following a shooting in Dorchester of a 4-year-old boy and reports that the suspect may have sped off on a motorized minibike. “These types of loud, dangerous vehicles are allowing individuals to intimidate our residents and cause disruption in our neighborhoods - and it must stop,’’ Menino said in announcing “Operation Kickstand.’’

Ten days from now, 19 kids from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps in Lancaster will put a very different face on the minibike culture. They’ll be participating in a regional minibike “rodeo,’’ a three-day competition at the Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth in Canaan, N.Y., under the auspices of the National Youth Project Using Minibikes.

Founded in 1969, NYPUM promotes trail-bike riding as a vehicle for curbing antisocial behavior and boosting self-esteem. Like other participants in the upcoming rodeo, the members from the Robert F. Kennedy organization typically come from broken homes, from households scarred by domestic violence and substance abuse.

Some are long estranged from their biological families; others have been removed from foster care or found themselves caught up in the juvenile justice system. Ranging in age from 7 to 18, the majority of the youths have been referred to the center through the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families or state Department of Education, remaining in residence for anywhere from a few weeks to a year or more.

“These are kids that, everybody knows what they do wrong,’’ says Rich Hylan, director of adventure education at the facility, who is overseeing the pre-rodeo training. “We’re trying to focus on what they do right.’’

Among those entering his first NYPUM rodeo is Sean, a 17-year-old South Shore resident who moved here in March 2010, the result of anger issues that made living at home problematic. Like his teammates, Sean soon discovered that the challenges - and sheer fun - of minibike riding and bike maintenance can do wonders for body and psyche.

“No wheelies, Sean!’’ he was reminded by Hylan during a practice session on campus last week. Weaving in and out of rows of orange cones, Sean showed why he’s among the fastest, most confident riders headed to Canaan. To complete a full circuit, he had to steer his bike over a log, execute a rapid sequence of stop-and-go techniques, then slalom through multiple arrays of cones, all while maintaining proper head and hand position.

His skills and confidence are already benefiting others. After buzzing through the final gate, Sean lined up behind two younger riders, Marc and Nick, both 11. (Last names and hometowns have been withheld at the request of the RFK staff, citing safety issues.) Having earned the title of Junior Leader, Sean is now tutoring less experienced riders in the finer points of throttle control, posture, and balance.

“Once you figure out the whole cone thing, you’ll be fine,’’ he advised Nick, a dirt-bike novice. Nick nodded and buckled his chin strap, preparing for his turn.

“Here we go, baby!’’ yelled Marc, taking off first in a cloud of dust. Five yards later, his bike sputtered and stalled. As Marc kicked his starter pedal in exasperation, Hylan gave him a brief lecture on anger management and gear shifting. Vrooom. Marc was off again.

Sean shook his head. “Not everyone jumps on a bike and knows how to ride,’’ he said, sweat trickling down his neck. “I tell them not to get angry if they fall, though. I try to show them how a rider should act.’’

Riding in the NYPUM program is a privilege; not everyone gets in. Riders sign a contract promising to meet specific goals - academic, behavioral, or otherwise - in order to stay eligible. “For one thing, we trust them not to jump on a bike and ride away,’’ says RFK senior program director Phil Pichie. The coolness factor is big, too, he adds. “This is a chance to be a kid. And some have never had that kind of chance before.’’

NYPUM started in California, underwritten by the American Honda Motor Co., which makes and donates all the bikes used. Since 1969, the project has averaged more than 2,000 participants annually, according to NYPUM national director Ken Hutchinson. Riders “feel like they’re part of an elite club,’’ he says, which helps them set other positive goals. In Sean’s case, these goals include finishing vocational school and enlisting in the US Army, where he hopes to put his budding mechanic’s skills to optimal use.

Next month’s competition marks the 35th year for the East Rodeo, a concept that took root in Massachusetts. The seven events include an obstacle course, trail riding, and the haystack and hot-dog eating competitions.

The haystack event requires riders to locate a hidden jersey, remove their protective gear, put on the shirt, then get all their other gear back on and ride home as fast as possible. “Hay is flying everywhere, it’s hilarious,’’ says Linda Corey, a licensed NYPUM instructor now serving as the center’s director of training and staff development.

Hot-dogging on a dirt bike takes on a whole different meaning in the latter event, where riders must cruise - slowly, or they have no shot - under a canopy of franks suspended on strings, grabbing as many mouthfuls as they can.

The three-day rodeo is not all riding, though. Ample time is set aside for swimming, camping, and socializing. Everyone who competes gets a medal. The most coveted award: a team sportsmanship medal, awarded by group vote to the team that best exemplifies the goals and ideals of the NYPUM program.

James, a 16-year-old from Cape Cod, says his biggest goal is showing respect for adults who set the rules, on the race course and elsewhere. Engaging in what he calls “positive peer interactions’’ are part of his contract goals as well.

“That’s been hard for me,’’ James said during a pre-practice interview. In another month or two, he said, he’ll likely move in with an older sister, aiming to finish vocational school in another year or two and eventually work as a motorcycle mechanic. “I thought I’d be more mature at this stage,’’ he offered, in response to a question about how he got to the center. “It’s something I really have to work on, I guess.’’

One counselor at the center who knows a lot about the program’s impact is Ulisses Robledo, a 23-year-old North Andover resident who first came here 10 years ago. Robledo, who spent nearly five years at the facility, bounced from agency to agency before landing at the RFK facility. His first two years here were “explosive,’’ he recalled. Then he got involved with NYPUM and found a welcome outlet for his aggression.

“It was a way to free my mind, to use my creativity while being outdoors,’’ said Robledo as he watched Sean, Marc, and Nick zip around the course. The more he rode, the more he worked to channel his anger more positively. “I tell all these kids, do what you have to do on the bike, and act like you have to act at the facility,’’ he said.

“You’ll wind up going to the rodeo. And there’s nothing better.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

BY JOSEPH P. KAHN | GLOBE STAFF

An upcoming minibike rodeo, run by the National Youth Project Using Minibikes, is aimed at helping troubled youths take more responsibility.

7 NYPUM rodeo events

150 registered rodeo participants

10,000 minibikes donated by Honda in

program’s first year

25 mph top speed, Honda 100-cc minibike

2,000 to 2,500 riders enrolled in NYPUM

annually

21 steps required to complete rider safety plan

42 active NYPUM locations across the US

103 community service projects completed

by riders

135 environmental projects completed

85 percent showing improved school grades

70 percent reporting improved family relations