Ten children in Old Town learned the joys of mountain biking during a monthlong program for grades 4-8 that ran mid-September through mid-October.
The program was made possible by a first-of-its-kind collaboration of three Maine-based organizations: Old Town Recreation, Maine Winter Sports Center and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.
“They were very excited to just go out and experience the outdoors,” said Kevin McPhee, director of Old Town Recreation, which hosted the program. “We have a river trail here in the Old Town-Orono area that goes along the Stillwater River. It’s just a beautiful bike trial, and they were able to experience that on a couple of occasions.”
Biking in the mud was their favorite part.
“They usually came back and had mud up their backs and huge smiles,” McPhee said. “Their parents would come to pick them up and just shake their heads and smile.”
Healthy Hometowns, the community development program of the Maine Winter Sports Center, provided mountain bikes and helmets for participants, as well as training and curriculum for leaders.
“The focus of this program was on experiencing the lifelong, active outdoor pursuit of mountain biking,” said Central Maine Healthy Hometowns coach Lauren Jacobs. “Kids had a blast exploring the trails, getting muddy and becoming skilled bikers.”
In April, L.L.Bean announced a $1 million donation to Healthy Hometowns to expand the program into a year-round, statewide effort. This donation coincides with L.L.Bean’s mission to get more children outdoors during their 100th anniversary year and beyond.
“In the past, Healthy Hometowns has been primarily cross-country ski-oriented and mostly in the County, up in Aroostook,” Jacobs said. “With the funding in April, we can go statewide and year-round. This is the first time we’ve had equipment to use in other regions.”
The funding is providing staff, training and resources for Healthy Hometowns expand its focus to outdoor activities such as paddling, hiking, mountain biking, orienteering and camping.
So far, the donation enabled Healthy Hometowns to purchase 20 mountain bikes, three boat trailers of kayaks, and expand their ski collection to approximately 1,500 sets of skis. The program “coaches” have started spreading out across the state, and the equipment supply will continue to grow over the next three years, Jacobs said.
The 10 children who participated in the Old Town mountain bike program gained skills and confidence through riding on local trails and fields and engaging in a variety of games and activities used to teach bike handling, shifting, braking, safety and navigating obstacles.
The Bicycle Coalition of Maine, a statewide cycling advocacy group, supported the initiative with a safety program for participants and program leadership by a coalition employee.
“Participants markedly improved their biking skills while getting great exercise and getting the opportunity to experience the great Maine outdoors as it was meant to be enjoyed,” McPhee said.
During the summer, Healthy Hometowns and Old Town Recreation worked together to provide kayaking and biking opportunities to summer camp participants. And this winter, the two organizations will work together for the third year to offer a youth cross-country ski program in conjunction with the Penobscot Valley Ski Club.
“This will be an ongoing effort,” McPhee said. “We look forward to doing this spring, summer, fall and winter. We look forward to partnering with them each season to provide a different activity.”
Healthy Hometowns trailers filled with cross-country skis and snowshoes will travel throughout the state all winter to give children the chance to experience winter sports. Several schools in the Bangor area have booked the equipment, including schools in Winterport, Hampden, Bangor and Dover-Foxcroft.
“We are really focused on winter right now, planning winter sports, getting out calendars filled up and getting ready to do our ski weeks,” Jacobs said. “But it won’t be long before we start thinking about spring and getting programming lined up. We already have a couple of requests — Milo has already scheduled the mountain bikes for their outing club members for some time in May.”
For information about Healthy Hometowns, including equipment rental and outdoor programs, visit www.mainewsc.org; the Old Town Recreation Department at www.oldtownrec.com; and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine at www.bikemaine.org.