During Kristin Gavin’s first semester studying exercise and sports psychology for her master’s degree at Temple, she created a business plan as a final project for her class on entrepreneurship in health professions.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is brilliant, I’m coming up with some really good ideas here,’” Gavin said.
The business plan was for a bicycle program involving women in transition from addiction, abuse or incarceration. The women would use a bicycle as a tool for recreation and transportation, as well as a way to socially connect with others.
At the same time, Gavin began teaching aerobics and yoga at a residential recovery home for women with histories of drug and alcohol addiction.
“I started teaching these fitness classes three mornings a week and my mind was blown,” Gavin said. “Here was this beautiful community of women who never had anyone teach them physical activity or integrate that into this critical life transition. That’s when I was like, ‘“We need to be doing this. There needs to be more of this.’ While aerobics and yoga were fun and easy, that wasn’t what I’m passionate about.”
As Gavin’s graduation neared, she returned to the business plan in hopes of turning it into a reality. The program became known as Gearing Up and began at Interim House, an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center in Mt. Airy.
The first official ride took place on National Bike to Work Day in May 2009.
Since then, Gearing Up has expanded, working with Chances, an outpatient women’s drug and alcohol center on 12th and Callowhill streets, Washington House in South Philly, the Joseph J. Peters Institute and Interim House.
Gearing Up hosts 11 rides throughout the week and each location has its own fleet of bikes and team leaders. In order to graduate the program, a woman must ride 100 miles with the group, demonstrate proficiency in how to fix a flat tire and perform a safety check on a bike.
“The rides are very casual and very social,” Gavin said. “We work with women with diverse backgrounds and physical capabilities. Our philosophy is that we meet women where they are. That means if we have one person where it’s her first time riding and she can’t ride more than a mile, the group will help her through her first mile and then go back out. We have to be really flexible and focus on community.”
Gavin said women often join the program just to get out of the house, but as they begin riding, they become fond of the sport.
“They get out and they see things, and they do things they wouldn’t otherwise be doing,” Gavin said. “We try to plan a monthly social ride. Last summer, we rode to a Camden River Sharks game and riding over the Ben Franklin Bridge is a thrill. We’re working with women who have been oppressed by abuse, addiction, incarceration, depression, marginalization, stigmatization and to just go on a bike ride and feel free. I actually can’t even wrap my head around how awesome that must feel.”
Leanne Sharkey, who was a client at Interim House for three months earlier this year, said she joined Gearing Up as soon she heard it was an opportunity to get fresh air.
“When I got to Interim House, I was not happy about being in rehab or any of that stuff, so I felt really confined,” Sharkey said. “The first 30 days you’re there, you’re kind of on lockdown at the house. The only thing you could participate in outside of the house was Gearing Up, so as soon as I knew I could get out, I was all about it.”
After never missing an opportunity to ride, Sharkey graduated from the program within a month and a half in June. Besides enjoying the chance to get outside, Sharkey said she rode her bike because of the positive impact it had on her.
“I saw changes in my mood, just my outlook on the whole situation completely changed,” she said. “I was a lot calmer, I was sleeping better. It was an overall mental and physical change.”
Once a woman rides 100 miles, she receives a lock, helmet, messenger bag and T-shirt, as well as her own bicycle. Since Sharkey graduated, she said she’s used her bike almost every day, especially at her job at Wash Cycle Laundry, where she picks up laundry from customers and delivers it to Laundromats in Center City.
“I never thought I’d be in this kind of shape,” Sharkey said. “I’m pulling 600 to 800 pounds for five or six hours every night. The company is really picking up and hopefully it will open some more doors for more stuff.”
Besides providing her with the skills needed for her job, Sharkey said Gearing Up has given her the chance to be an inspiration to others as she continues to ride with women at Interim House.
“I hear the girls tell me all the time that it helps them to know that I’m out and I’m doing it, and it gives them some hope that it can definitely be done,” Sharkey said. “Gearing Up has been amazing, and hopefully I’ll be able to stick with it for a really long time.”
Cheyenne Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.