By Dedra Cordle
A day after receiving new bikes, Fatuma Mohamed and her friends Halima Omar and Fariyah Hussein were taking advantage of a rare moment of open space in the gymnasium at the Vaughn E. Hairston YMCA.
Given permission to use their bikes indoors, their borrowed time was spent racing in mini-circles, practicing new tricks and becoming acquainted with their prized possessions.
During a quick lap and a distraction from a young boy who was expressing his jealously of their bikes, Mohamed slid into the wall. The impact of this soft collision caused the chain on Mohamed’s bike to drop, which in turn led to a groan of frustration from the sixth-grader at Park Street Intermediate.
After walking her bike away from the boy now laughing at her misfortune, Mohamed, Omar and Hussein gathered around the out of commission bike and discussed how they were going to fix the problem.
Before this day, the girls likely would never have tried to fix the chain themselves. They might have asked someone else to do it, or they have might given up on the bike all together. However, something in them had changed and they wanted to figure it out on their own.
Two months prior, Mohamed, Omar and Hussein attended the first meeting of Girls in Gear, a new program that focuses on empowering young girls through the bicycle. Over the course of those eight weeks, the trio – along with seven other girls in the program – explored five areas of skill building: bicycle safety, basic bicycle mechanics, community urban design, public speaking and nutrition.
As a career-related tie-in Jess Mathews, the founder of Girls in Gear, brought in several women who work in male dominated fields in order to help the girls lose the fear they may have developed about showing interest in engineering or architecture.
“We really want them to know that they do have that ability,” said Mathews.
She said she designed the program for girls between the ages of 9 and 14, which is a critical stage in their development.
“They are going through a lot of changes in their life and they are starting to feel peer pressure and experience drama at school,” said Mathews. “It seems at this time, the girls start to veer into one direction while the boys go in another and intimidation can happen when girls show an interest in (stereotypical) boy things.
“We want girls to get comfortable in these fields, we want them to know it’s okay to use their hands, that it’s okay to get dirty, that it’s okay if they do something that is not seen as girly enough.”
Hussein, who is also a sixth-grader at Park Street Intermediate, said she wanted to join Girls in Gear because it finally gave her the opportunity to express her interest in engineering.
“I wanted to learn all about how bikes work, what all the places of a bike mean, and I really wanted to learn how to change a tire,” she said.
Through the program, the girls did learn how to change a bike tire and Hussein said she now excels at it.
“I think I could do it in a few minutes.”
Fortunately for Hussein, her tire did not fall off during her excursion at the gym but it may get worn down quickly as she plans to use the bike all the time.
“I will take it out in cold weather,” she said. “And if I have to go somewhere, I will use it too.”
Becky Brown, an employee at the Hairston YMCA, said watching these girls gain confidence in their abilities through Girls in Gear has been a pleasure to watch.
“I know they absolutely loved it,” she said. “They were inquisitive, excited and extremely engaged.”
Brown said some of her favorite moments were watching the girls take apart old bikes and try to put them back together.
“They would try to do something four or five times and get frustrated when it didn’t work,” she said “but then you would show them how it was done and it would just click with them and they wouldn’t forget it again.”
That determination was on display during the inspection of Mohamed’s bike chain. They had learned how to fix chains on old bikes, but were struggling to figure out how to fix the chain on the new (and very modern) bike. After several minutes of trying to fix it on their own, they asked Brown to come over and give them a hand.
Under the watchful eyes of the three friends, she tinkered around with the chain and finally got it back on track much to their delight. Brown told them to remember how it was done. A confident chorus of “We will” followed.