Thursday, May 19, 2011

Livable Streets Profile: Gina Overshiner and the Smithton Bike Brigade

Gina Overshiner's bicycle
Getting the kids to school can send a message, build your team and burn calories. All in one swoop. (Or is it one swoosh?)

Columbia, Missouri's Gina Overshiner is a hands-on mom. And a mom who bikes. When her two kids Max and Anna Rose started attending different local schools Gina opted not to get a mini-van with room for the whole soccer team. Instead, she did what any mid-western mom with a passion for active transportation did: she started a bike brigade.

Every school day, Gina rides with Max to Columbia's Smithton Middle School. On the way to school, Gina and Max stop at Again Street Park. There they pick up any other neighborhood kid who wants to ride. The kids and their parents like the safety that riding as a group offers (Ask a generally solitary rider about the power of riding with one, ten or a hundred other bicyclists. It changes things.) After navigating west-central Columbia's mix of local roads and a state highway, a regional commercial hub and the ubiquitous hills, Gina and her Smithton Bike Brigade arrive at school.

"The Smithton Bike Brigade offers an opportunity for social engagement around bike activities," says Gina. "I am always thinking about new ways to get more kids involved. Besides being a social activity with a workout attached the Brigade fosters community and encourages social activism among these students."

Bike/Ped Day at the Capitol, 2011
Recently, the students heard about Zambikes, a not-for-profit that provides bicycle ambulances to villages in Zambia. With a population of about 12 million in an area the size of Texas, Zambia lies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Motor vehicles are scarce in rural Zambia and a bicycle is one way to easily connect Zambians who needs medical attention with providers who are often separated by large distances. With their interest in supporting bicycling in Zambia, the students (with some help from Gina) created a fundraiser. They operated a Bike Spa at Columbia's 2011 Earth Day Festival. Riders paid $10 for the students to clean their rides’ chains and apply needed lube, check the brakes and tire pressure. The bike spa profits went to Zambikes to buy a bike ambulance.

Columbia, Missouri's Smithton Bike Brigade
Gina notes "These kids understand and appreciate the need to get political about bicycling. We took them to Jefferson City this Spring to talk to legislators on Bike/Ped Day at the Capitol. The elected officials were impressed when a bunch of sixth-graders shared information with them about bike safety." Also politically active on the local level, the bike brigade continues to work with the City of Columbia staff to improve bike and pedestrian facilities at a major intersection near Smithton Middle School. As Education Coordinator for the PedNet Coalition, Gina sees all this as part of her job. "The bike brigade is an experiment," she adds. "I am trying to find our what the kids respond to."

And after Gina gets done riding Max and his fellow members of the Bike Brigade to Smithton, Gina turns around and rides home, picks up AnnaRose on her bike and accompanies her to school in the other direction.

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