With help of a BMX pro, at-risk youth pedal their way to a better future

Danny Orozco says he’s found a way to get past the stuff that makes him angry. Jesus Morales’ whole attitude changed and his grades soared.

Both found a better way by jumping on a bike, one of the tools of the Freewheel Project at Sequoia Middle School in Fresno.

Success stories like those was one reason why Mosqueda Park was filled with smiling and excited faces Saturday afternoon as the initiative sponsored a BMX Jam, hoping to spread awareness of the afterschool program for at-risk youths in southeast Fresno.

Freewheel was founded in 2012 by former BMX racing professional Tony Hoffman, a Valley native who strives to give back to the community through his passion for action sports.

What started as two-week summer camps grew to a year-round, five-day a week program where Sequoia students can learn a positive, character-building path.

One of the goals is to help students who tend to “fall through the cracks” and risk developing dangerous habits at home and in school.

Hoffman, who scored a magazine cover in 2001 as a professional rider, is well aware of the threat. He struggled with addiction and was homeless by 2006 and in prison by 2007.

“When I got through all that, I wanted to do something,” Hoffman said. “This is like my baby, this is what I envisioned when I was in prison,” Hoffman said as he looked out to the bike park, filled with young riders excited about their futures.

It has been a successful venture, with Hoffman saying that 75 percent of students see growth in their GPA. More than 60 percent, he said, improve state testing scores as well as attendance while participating in the Freewheel Project.

Saturday’s triple-digit heat did not stop any of the youths, and a handful of adults, from peddling across hot cement and taking part in a freestyle and amateur competition.

Orozco and Morales, both 15, shared how the program changed their lives and how after graduating they now are helping peers.

“I was new to the school, it was like my first week and Tony came up to me and asked me randomly if I wanted to join the Freewheel Project,” Orozco said of his introduction four years ago. “I signed the papers, came the first day, I fell in love with the bike.”

Orozco said he attended every practice because it helped him get his mind off everyday problems.

“If I’m mad, I come here and it gets my mind off of it,” Orozco said.

He sought to make new members out of friends who he thought were at risk. One of those was Morales, who recalled how Orozco recruited him when they met in eighth grade.

“My first year at Sequoia, I was doing a little bit bad because I was going down that wrong path,” Morales said, adding problems at home were something with which the project helped him cope.

“My attitude and everything changed,” Morales said. “I started to do better in class and my last year at Sequoia, I graduated with A’s and B’s.”

Not only did the boys encourage others friends to join, they made new friendships that otherwise would not have formed.

“In the program,” Orozco said, “you talk to each other, you help each other and you become kind of like family.”

Before the program, Orozco and Morales said, video games were their sole passion. Now, the goal is to become professional BMX riders.

Megan Conner, executive director of the program, said Freewheel is unlike any other non-profit program for which she’s worked. Seven schools soon could be participating in the program if a contract is reached with Fresno Unified School District, according to Conner.

“I really love this age,” she said, “because they are at a level where you can really reach them, their hearts are still tender.”

Jessica Johnson: 559-441-6051, @iamjesslj