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Innovation & Job News

Gearing Up puts formerly incarcerated women on two wheels

A group ride organized by Gearing Up

While teaching yoga and aerobics at Interim House, a recovery center for women overcoming addiction and other mental health issues -- many of whom had been incarcerated -- Kristin Gavin noticed that her classes weren’t reaching everyone.

"I surveyed them and asked, would you ride a bike?" recalls Gavin. Many of the women, including those who wouldn’t come to yoga or aerobics, said yes.

What was the difference?

"Women said, 'it’s fun,' 'it’s exercise,' and ‘I want to get out of the house,'" she explains.

So Gavin, who came to Philadelphia in 2007 to earn her Masters degree from Temple University in Exercise and Sport Psychology, launched the Center City-based Gearing Up with five bicycles in 2009. In December, the program nabbed a $40,000 grant from the GlaxoSmithKline IMPACT Awards.

Part of what spurred Gavin to create a community cycling program for formerly incarcerated women was realizing what a challenge even a relatively short jail term could be for a woman’s health. Many of her students talked about the problem of weight gain. One said she had gained 80 pounds while incarcerated for six months.

In 2011, Gearing Up's program expanded to serve not just women outside the walls, but those still residing in Philadelphia County's Riverside Correctional Facility, offering three indoor spin classes per week for inmates. Those who complete 18 sessions in eight weeks are invited to join the outside Gearing Up program upon their release.

By tracking the health of Riverside participants, Gavin learned that women who had an 80 percent class attendance rate maintained their weight throughout their incarceration.

But cycling isn’t just about the number on the scale. Since founding Gearing Up, Gavin has been surprised by all the ways this activity has helped women re-integrate into physically and socially healthy lives.

For women emerging from correctional facilities, Gearing Up has four partner programs in Philly: Interim House, CHANCES, University City's Kirkbride Center and Gaudenzia Washington House. The organization leads two to three group bike rides per week for their clients, who track their miles until they reach 100. At that point, members graduate from the program, receiving a refurbished bike of their own (along with a lock, flat-changing kit, helmet and other gear).

"It has this whole other social component to it that wasn’t as palpable with an aerobics class or a yoga class," insists Gavin. And especially for the many women coming from repressive or abusive environments, the exercise was a great mood elevator and change of scenery.

"Women say, 'The fresh air feels so good in my face,'" she explains. They enjoy getting out in the community, seeing new places and "developing relationships with people in a very different way, a very kinesthetic way, and those are very normalizing experiences."

"Our focus has been going deeper," Gavin says of how the GSK dollars will help Gearing Up (a first-time applicant for the grant). That means extending services to the 40 women the program serves at any given time. The money will help provide increased support through volunteers and staff, even after participants’ graduation from the program, ensuring riders can make their skills on the road a permanent part of an independent life.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Kristin Gavin, Gearing Up
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