But in the small community of Blaina, in Blaenau, Gwent, a deprived area where alcohol and drug addiction is common and where young people have little else to do but get into trouble, a group of teenagers on bikes have proved the exception to this stereotype. They boys have turned their cycling from an activity that caused local havoc into a force for social good.
The seven young people had faced problems at school, some had had run-ins with the police and all of them hung around the town centre on their bikes. The boys, recognising their problems stemmed partly from boredom and a lack of local facilities, heard about the Prince’s Trust and applied for money from the organisation’s community cash awards scheme. With match funding from the Welsh Assembly Government, Buzz Bikes was born in October 2008.
The outdoor cycling club offers a diversion with bicycle maintenance training, health and safety training and organised cycle rides. The group has designed its own logo, now emblazoned on hoodies and T-shirts, and the youngsters runs a small shop in town hiring and repairing bicycles; if the local police knock on their doors now, it is to hire a Buzz Bike (the boys have loaned bikes to local officers).
Around 50 young people now belong to Buzz Bikes while the core founding members have learned skills including negotiating, budgeting and working in a team. None of the original members has been in trouble since starting the scheme.
The founding members now want to give something back to the charity that’s supported them so in October this year, they plan to do the Prince’s Trust Adventure Challenge to the Himalayas. All team members have to raise £3,700 each for The Prince’s Trust in order to take part in the challenge – hiking, biking and white-water rafting 286 kilometres in seven days. The money raised will go back to The Prince’s Trust to help more young people.
I heard about the project earlier this year when it won the Prince’s Trust Community Impact Award, sponsored by Balfour Beatty, to recognise the positive contribution of young people to the community. I was reminded about it while watching a recent BBC story about the Bike Works project in America to teach children who might otherwise be on the streets how to build and maintain bikes. The project has been a runaway success but, with public services scarce, it is a victim of that success – increasingly finding itself providing emergency care by offering children food, or a place to sleep, rather than concentrating on its central aim.
As Bike Works’ director, Kitty Heite told the BBC: “So many kids are falling through the gaps, and it’s the responsibility of society to help them..We aren’t social services, and we could do so much more with Bike Works, with the fun thing, if we weren’t having to do that. Making the voluntary sector responsible for the glue in people’s lives is a little scary.”
Heite’s words stress an emerging theme in the current cuts climate; that an over-reliance on community-based enterprises might backfire and distract organisations from their founding princples. I’m not suggesting that the Buzz Bikes teenagers are expected to (or could) provide a social safety net if local public services decline, but I do hope that their core aims – what the American Bike Works director calls “the fun thing”, the diversion caused by an interesting activity – will long continue.
* To support Buzz Bikes/the Prince’s Trust, visit the group’s Just Giving page.