When avid cyclist Mike Slayden decided to start a nonprofit aimed at combating childhood obesity in the Central Valley, the name Off the Front — cycling jargon for a rider who has surged ahead and broken away from the pack — just seemed to fit. Turns out, it’s also a good way to describe the seven-year-old organization, which has relied on its relationships with local businesses and schools to achieve its goal of getting kids to make healthy lifestyle changes. Earlier this month, Fresno Compact honored Off the Front with one of 10 Business-School Partnership awards, given annually to “heroes who promote business-education partnerships.”
Slayden was inspired to create Off the Front while working as a teaching pastor at The Well Community Church. Though he loved his job, he said, he felt there was something else he should be doing. He just wasn’t sure what that something was. A friend suggested he consider how his passion — cycling — could fit in with the needs of his community.
“I started finding out about the city,” he recalled. “I was an import, at this point I didn’t really know the geography of the city, demographics.” What he learned, he said, was that childhood poverty and obesity rates in the Central Valley are among the highest in the state. Knowing he couldn’t solve those problems, he said, he began to consider how he could “take a bite out of that element.” What if, he wondered, the bicycle could be used as a way to help in those areas?
With the idea to offer a free bike to kids in some of the city’s most impoverished communities, Slayden approached then-Susan B. Anthony Elementary principal Kim Collins to help him create an incentive program. “We crafted a program that was basically a nine-month earn-a-bike process for fourth-graders,” he said.
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The program focuses on four keys areas: academics, attendance, behavior and health and nutrition. During the first three quarters of the school year, participating students accrue points in each category; they must earn a minimum of 900 (out of a possible 1,500) points in order to earn a new bike, helmet and bike lock.
As part of the health and nutrition component, he said, volunteers work with classroom teachers to teach students about healthy habits. In small groups, they talk about things like avoiding extra sugar and including fruits and vegetables in their diets.
The program was piloted at Susan B. Anthony in the second half of the 2009-10 school year and is now at nine schools in Fresno and Clovis, including Pinedale Elementary.
“Students are motivated to work toward the goal of attaining a bike because it is possible for all students to achieve it,” said Pinedale teacher Patti Moore-Clack. “The program encourages students to compete against themselves and keep improving in all areas of their academics.”
Slayden added, “The beauty of the system is in Fresno and Clovis, you don’t just get a letter grade, there’s also an effort grade. You can be a C student and give an outstanding effort and get just as many points as an A student who has an unsatisfactory attitude. ... That’s almost more important than a letter grade because they’re understanding my attitude, my effort, my heart — all that matters.”
“The positive adult role models the students get to work with are also a huge benefit. ... They are able to interact with adults who are not necessarily part of the school who influence and encourage them. It’s another important person in their lives who they know cares about them and how they are doing.”
This year, Slayden said, about 600 to 700 students will earn an Off the Front bike. The new bikes, designed to appeal to both boys and girls, are “very simple” one-speed, 20-inch bikes. “No bells and whistles,” Slayden acknowledged, “but I have three daughters at home and it meets their approval.”
Although only fourth-grade students are eligible to earn the bike award, all students at participating schools can participate in another Off the Front Program, the Active Commute program. Students who choose to walk or ride a bike to school are given a RFID card that can be attached to a backpack. Each time they pass through a scanner that has been set up on campus, 10 cents is placed in a digital account. Once their funds have accumulated, students can spend them at a student store that sells items like school supplies and soccer balls.
“When I grew up, I rode my bike to school, I walked to school,” Slayden said. “I was active, it was just a normal part of my life. What we’re trying to do is find fun ways for kids to walk or ride to school.”
Once kids have earned their bikes, the goal is for them to use them, so on Saturday mornings the nonprofit hosts a mobile bike repair clinic at the schools it serves. The clinic’s services are offered free to everyone, including adults.
“In a lot of the neighborhoods we work in,” Slayden said, “a lot of the kids don’t have the ability to fix a bike, they don’t have the means, they don’t have stores around them with tubes.”
At the Saturday clinics, volunteers not only help kids fix flat tires and other problems, they teach kids to fix them themselves. “We’re trying to keep bikes ride-able and not have so many kids say, ‘Oh, my tire popped, so I can’t ride it anymore.’ If they can demonstrate proficiency in fixing a flat, I’ll give them a crescent wrench and a patch kit,” Slayden explained. “That’s a $2 problem and a little bit of time, and if that’s keeping them from being active, we can solve that problem easily.”
As a nonprofit, Off the Front relies on its partnerships with the community to remain active. Funding comes from a number of sources, including grants from the likes of Kaiser Permanente, but Slayden stressed the importance of building partnerships with businesses and individuals who are willing to support a school long-term. Rather than growing too rapidly, he said, he’d prefer to establish lasting relationships at the schools Off the Front already serves.
“Our goal is not to be big, our goal is to be healthy,” he said. “I want to hang a bike up on the wall in a cafeteria and look at a kindergartener and say, ‘When you’re in fourth grade, you’ll have an opportunity to earn that bike.’”