Steering Kids Onto the Right Path


It's a sunny Thursday afternoon, and a handful of youngsters are on their way to church, not for religious purposes but to have a safe place to meet and practice the skills they learned this summer.

They are members of Urban Rangers, a 4-year-old program that unites youngsters here for community service and organized social and sporting activities. The group was developed by Katie Davis, 39, who has lived most of her life in the community.

After 16 years of reporting and writing for National Public Radio and mostly focusing on urban affairs, she decided it was time to stop observing communities and do something about the Adams-Morgan neighborhood she calls home.

"It was very frustrating for me to get a sense of the problem and very rarely a sense of a solution," she said.

She resigned from her job three years ago--though she still works from home as a freelance writer for public radio--and began meeting with some of the neighborhood youngsters. She would take them on walks with her dog and encourage them to do their homework, becoming a trusted adult within the neighborhood. Little by little, more youngsters came to her, and when she realized she needed a meeting place and the park was dirty, she had her new friends help her clean it up.

From this, the Urban Rangers were born--a group of 10- to 16-year-olds who meet several times a week during the summer and once a week during the school year to do community service projects.

"It evolved very organically," Davis recalled. "Since I'm at home a lot, I began interacting with the kids. Kids know where there's a receptive ear, and they found me. I got to know them, and I realized very quickly that they didn't have a lot to do."

This year, the group added a bike-repair workshop as part of its weekly routine after bike rides became a popular part of the program. The group's eventual goal is to have a bike shop of its own, to repair used bikes and resell them to fund the organization, and to make a small profit.

With the help of Charlie McCormick, 35, co-owner of City Bikes, a bike shop in the heart of Adams-Morgan, the 15 group members were taught how to fix old bikes and fine-tune their new ones. More hours of bicycle lessons and more hours of community service meant earning a brand new bike for themselves. The more hours worked, the better the bike. The catch is, members will have to put the bikes together themselves, using their new skills.

This particular Thursday was one of the last meetings before the group took a small hiatus before the start of school. The few who decided to come walked their bikes through the congregation doors of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, across the street from City Bikes.

They veered to the right, to a partitioned-off area just for them. Leaning against the partition were old, beat-up bicycles with worn paint, no kickstands, rusty handlebars and missing brakes.

In the center were six metal work stands and several workbenches coded by primary colors. Unlike previous meetings, this time they were here to fix their own bikes.

Iby Haidara and Biniam Woldemichael, both 14, threw on their grease-stained yellow aprons, put their bikes in the work stands and began tinkering with their chains.

"It's already fixed. I'm just oiling it to make it ride better," Iby said.

But not all the bikes were quite fixed. A loud squeak pierced the air from the opposite side of the makeshift shop.

McCormick came rushing over to find Dawrt Woldemichael, 10, working with volunteer Arpad Lazar, 27. The three looked more closely at the bike chain, and Dawrt quietly listened as McCormick and Lazar carefully explained what needed to be done. Then it was Dawrt's turn to try. He did as he was shown, and the squeal slowly diminished.

"Bikes are one of the few mechanical devices where you can see what's going on, and without special tools, you can fix them. That's unique these days," McCormick said. "If you can teach kids to take apart a bike and then fix it, they won't be intimidated in other things in life like the SAT, going to college or finding a job."

Urban Rangers is funded by two grants: $7,800 from the D.C. Sports Commission and $5,000 from Spring Creek, an organization that funds local grass-roots groups. Money is used to pay for the new bikes, helmets, workbenches, parts and tools, snacks, and activity costs. The space for their workshop is donated by the church, although the group is still in search of a more permanent location. Equipment also comes from City Bikes.

With the excitement and emphasis of the earn-a-bike program, the Urban Rangers have not forgotten their community service roots. This summer, they planted trees, and they plan to help clean up a local cemetery a second time.

"It's really important that when they get out into the world, they're thinking about their community and see links between putting work into a park, keeping it clean and then be able to have fun in it," Davis said.

"It's also just the idea that they can affect their environment. That they don't have to wait for their government or their church to do something, they can do it themselves. It's a good lesson to learn about life. You don't have to wait for someone to give you a job, but you can create one."

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