A misty rain is falling at the base of the Mountain Road in Stowe, and teenaged boys are circling their mountain bikes through puddles in a small dirt parking lot. Their twice-weekly trail ride hasn't even begun, but already their shirts and backsides are streaked from the rooster tails of mud spraying off their back tires. The logo on the back of the boys' T-shirts aptly reads, "Dirt is good."
Many of these kids' lives have been messy in other ways. The 30 or so riders are all participants in Lamoille County Sprockids, a six-week, summer mountain biking program created by the Lamoille County Court Diversion Program. Sprockids is open to all youths in Lamoille County ages 11 to 16. But many of these boys were referred to the program because of disciplinary problems in school, drug or alcohol abuse and/or run-ins with the law. Some are foster kids in state custody; others have parents behind bars or under the supervision of the Department of Corrections.
Mostly, though, these boys -- the girls' group isn't riding today -- attend Sprockids because they love to ride. Unlike other parts of Vermont, Lamoille County has very few organized summer activities for teenagers. Sprockids gives them a chance to expend energy on pursuits more constructive than doing drugs or getting into trouble.
As the late-morning rain continues to fall, Peter Gerson, a social worker at Lamoille Union Middle School who also works with Sprockids, eyes the sky warily and shakes his head. We won't be riding far today, he informs the group. But even inclement weather offers a teaching opportunity. Gerson reminds the boys why it's irresponsible to ride on wet trails. Not that they really need that lesson again; it's been a wet summer, and the boys have done enough trail maintenance to know how quickly bike routes can get trashed after heavy rains.
"OK, everyone, check your brakes and tires!" Gerson shouts, to a chorus of squealing rubber. Next, the boys line up single-file, pedal onto the road, and head toward the trailhead about a quarter of a mile away. As the convoy turns a corner, one of the boys wipes out on the pavement, his bicycle sliding into a curb. The other riders laugh as he brushes himself off and hops back onto his bike. Fortunately, the only thing bruised is his ego.
Riding near the head of the pack is 14-year-old Levi Griswold of Johnson, a somewhat brawnier teen than most of his fellow riders. This is Griswold's third year with Sprockids and his enthusiasm for mountain biking is obvious.
"When I first started Sprockids, God, I just wanted to quit!" he says, as we approach the trailhead. "It was really difficult. But I push myself more now and do a lot more of the harder, technical stuff."
Mark Scott, who's also riding with the group, is the youth activities coordinator for the Lamoille County Court Diversion Program. A National Guardsman who just returned from Iraq, Scott says he barely recognized Griswold this year, physically and emotionally. "Here's a kid who wasn't engaged in school before," he says. "He was having a lot of behavior-management problems, both at school and at home. Sprockids isn't the only factor, but I certainly think it's been a big contributing factor to his feeling good about himself and engaging with adults."
Griswold's adoptive mother, Candy Griswold, agrees. She says her son has become a completely different person since he got involved in Sprockids. Levi came to live with her from an abusive household, she explains. His behavioral problems were so serious that he'd been kicked out of public school and sent to the Laraway School, a private academy in Johnson for children with emotional and behavioral disorders.
"His old principal told me, 'I never would have thought Levi would be in regular school again,'" Candy Griswold says. "They pretty much wrote him off." This year, the boy attended Lamoille Union High School, where his grades have been As and Bs.
"I think the Sprockids program is fantastic, not only for kids with problems, but for anybody," she adds. "It's helped Levi emotionally, it's strengthened him physically, it's given him patience, and he's become quite the leader."
Sprockids also gave Griswold something to focus on during the school year. Over the winter he attended Sprockids' "tool school," where he learned to build and repair mountain bikes. Now he's helping to assemble and rebuild them. "Already, we've got a kid who snapped a derailleur off," Griswold says, talking about the program's bikes as though they were his own. "But truing wheels, that's the worst part of it."
There's nothing especially high-tech about Sprockids' formula for success, explains Heather Hobart, co-director of the Lamoille Court Diversion Program. "The biggest commonality we see in the kids who are getting in trouble is, they aren't a part of anything," she says. "They haven't experienced success or mastery in anything in their lives. Until now."
The first Sprockids program was founded in Gibsons, British Columbia, by Doug Detwiller, an elementary school teacher and mountain bike enthusiast who wanted to redefine the meaning of sports for young people. Concerned that the modern concept of "student athlete" had become elitist and exclusionary, Detwiller designed an entire educational curriculum that incorporates mountain biking into all its lesson plans. The program's motto: "Nobody sits on the bench." Today, Sprockids programs can be found in 17 countries.
After a woefully short ride through the woods, the boys head back to base camp for a barbecue lunch. As they're sitting around eating burgers, a lanky 14-year-old named Alberto hobbles by with a bandaged leg. While they were descending a hill, one of the other riders crashed into him and gashed open his leg, he explains. Accidents as serious as this one are rare, according to Scott. Although the boys have done a lot of technical riding this year -- jumping over logs, dropping off rock ledges, winding through steep, heavily wooded single-track trails -- the worst injuries they've had were a few scraped elbows and bruised shins, he reports.
Vermont has other Sprockids programs, in Stowe and Norwich, and chapters are also scattered around New England. What makes this one different, Hobart says, is its emphasis on affordability and inclusion -- any child can join, regardless of whether he or she owns a bike or can afford the $15 fee. Chuck's Bikes in Morrisville has provided 20 new mountain bikes at or near cost. Shop owner Hank Glowiak has also sold heavily discounted mountain bikes to several of the participants.
The Lamoille County Sprockids program, now in its third year, costs about $10,000 annually and cobbles together its funding from a variety of sources, from the Vermont general fund to the United Way. Hobart admits it's hard measuring the program's success, especially when you're talking about getting kids engaged in their community. "But what I've noticed this year," she adds, "is more and more kids are scrounging up their own money and buying bikes, and going out riding on their own."
Among them is 12-year-old John Jones of Hyde Park. He says he bought his first bike from Chuck's Bikes -- a $600 Cannondale which Glowiak sold him for $300 -- so he could ride with Sprockids. Tyler Gomes, 16, saved some money from his allowance to buy a bike, and paid for the rest by working in Glowiak's bike shop. "It took me a month and a half," Gomes says, "but it's worth it."