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January 28, 2010

Youth Noise Interview with Julianne Idlet

Boston’s Just the Beginning! A Chat with Julianne Idlet from CYCLE Kids

Posted on Youth Noise by: jameshodges on January 29, 2010 at 04:54 PM

Yesterday, I was privileged enough to sit down with Julianne Idlet, the founder of CYCLE Kids, a nonprofit organization that runs in-school bike safety and nutrition classes at schools in the metro Boston area.  

The programs have been a runaway success, and I caught up with her just as she headed off for a meeting about expanding into New York City schools this spring.

What is CYCLE Kids, and how did you start it?

It started in 2004. I was reading about children with Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Six years ago, childhood obesity wasn’t in the news as much as it is now– so I asked myself, how can I change this? I realized, a bike is a real hook for the kids because they want to get out and ride. Then we teach them about nutrition as well, because they’re not separate subjects! We try to make them understand, they’re eating for energy. When you eat a certain amount of calories, you get a certain amount of energy out of it that you should be using!

So I quit my corporate job in a startup software company and started managing a research lab at Harvard University, because it gave me health insurance and money for my bills, but didn’t require me to work over-time. I went from software marketing to cutting worms and cleaning fish tanks in a lab, studying the biomechanics of fish swimming.

From 2004 to 2007, that job allowed me just enough free time to take on this CYCLE Kids project, like a second full-time job. In 2007, I started doing just CYCLE Kids full time, sometimes getting paid and sometimes not. It was scary! But given this economy, running a startup with the kind of success we’ve seen is pretty remarkable. The amount of volunteer work we get every year is PHENOMENAL! We couldn’t do it without the volunteers. Even our website was a gift!

What’s developed since then? What’s changed?

After teaching for two years, i realized there was a demand for the programs, but I couldn’t teach them all myself. I owned 60 bicycles, 200 helmets, and they were in my backyard, in my friends’ backyards, in their garages… I realized I couldn’t do everything myself anymore, so I began testing the model of giving the program to schools, to teach during physical education classes.  And that’s when the program really started growing.

Right now we’ve got grants for five in-school programs in Boston-area school systems. I’m also a visiting scholar at Boston University, studying the efficacy of the program. Over 20% of 4th and 5th graders don’t know how to ride a bike, or don’t have access to a bike. So we really are bringing them a skill they’ll have for the rest of their lives.

Police officers are helping, and it allows them to do more than a 20-minute talk on bike safety. They go in for all eight in-school sessions, 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the school. So now, in addition to teaching kids bike safety and health skills, we’re building a relationship between the police and the students. You know, just because a police officer is there, it doesn’t mean there’s a problem.

I remember the first time the police officers walked into our school in Cambridge, one little girl looked to her friend, and said “somebody’s in trouble.” I had to say “No, no, no! They’re going to ride bikes with you!” My goal was to fight childhood obesity, but there was this whole other community effect now. When we build these strategic partnerships, we can do so much more than we could by ourselves.

And what about the new programs you’re starting in New York?

We’re growing partnerships in New York now, and if we can raise the money, we’ll be able to grow programs very quickly. In Boston, each municipality has a different school system, and a different set of people to talk to. The NY Children’s Aid Society works with schools in all five boroughs, whereas in Boston, I have to talk to six different school systems to serve one metropolitan area.

New York City is a great place for us to grow, because the mayor has done wonderful things for cycling infrastructure in the past five years, so many new bike paths. We can now come in and help teach the children how to use them properly, so they get utilized to their fullest potential.

The Department of Transportation has an initiative to give away helmets to children, too. So we’re trying to run education programs with them, where they’ll be able to hand these helmets out to kids while they learn to ride. So we have a good set of partners, we just need to raise the funding.

We’re hoping to have some funding to do a few programs this spring– cross my fingers. Livable Streets [] and the Children’s Aid Society [] are helping us to identify schools that would be a good place to start.

What’s next, after New York?

The goal is to be national. I got a call from Corpus Christie, Texas recently, asking for 43 programs– but the barrier is hiring teachers and employees to execute the programs, and raising money to get these schools the helmets and bikes they need.

The curriculum is developed and proven, but what we do isn’t just sharing a curriculum, it’s also gathering grants to get these schools the equipment they need to start the program. So we do fundraising to help them. If we were ‘marketing’ ourselves in the traditional sense, we’d spend a bunch of money just finding the right schools.

Instead, we raise the money ourselves and if we have enough money to run, say, 50 programs this year, we then have schools apply directly to us for the grant of program. I try to take the burden off of schools to create these programs, to make it easy for schools to implement them.

Before we wrap up, are there any inspiring stories you’d like to share?

Well, I remember we had one little girl who was a little overweight– she actually didn’t know what exercise was. We had her group do some laps around a baseball diamond, as fast as they could. She got off the bike afterwards and walked over to me. She was out of breath, huffing and puffing… she looked absolutely terror-stricken. I said “Honey, what’s wrong?” and she said, “I can’t feel my legs!”

I said “Congratulations! That means you’re doing a great job!” Her face lit up. She was worried that she had hurt herself! I knew that this girl was learning to enjoy the feeling of pushing yourself a little bit. That’s why I do this.


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