By Joseph White of Neighborhood Sports Chicago
Summer and vacation go hand in hand. But for too many kids, “vacation” just means a break from school, because they rarely actually go anywhere. Instead, they spend most of their summer inside the house, or hanging around the neighborhood. But for the last ten years, Andrew Dortch of Dortch Enterprises has offered inner-city youth a unique and productive alternative: exploring Chicago on their bicycles.
“Chicago is a big city with a lot to see,” Dortch said. “Most of the kids out there don’t know how to get around.”
Dortch and his 27 Cycling Voyagers set out every other weekday on their bikes in search of something new. The program, based out of East Garfield Park, runs from June to August and gives young Chicagoans an opportunity to see the city in a new way, and visit places they’ve never been.
The idea itself is fairly innovative. Picture 20-or-so uniformed kids riding down the street in an ordered line, heading to a museum or a riverboat ride. An unusual sight to be sure. But Dortch feels the exploration is a prime way to open the imagination.
“I just want to give the kids the adventure,” he said. “They don’t have to be in the country to have that.”
The program’s campers, who range in age from 9 to 16, can vouch for that. “Cycling Voyagers has shown me places in Chicago I’d never seen before,” 13-year-old Jonmella Sutton said. “And it’s a good way to get exercise.”
An additional benefit of the program is the healthy, active lifestyle it promotes. “Most of these kids are losing weight and becoming better athletes,” Dortch said.
The kids at Dortch Enterprises’ camp come from various neighborhoods on the West and South Sides. This summer, riding destinations have included Chinatown, Navy Pier, the Taste of Chicago and the Lincoln Park Zoo.
For Measha Morrow, who started as a camper four years ago, the program has served as an introduction to everything Chicago has to offer. “I’ve been all over the city now,” the 17-year-old said. “My favorite place would have to be Foster Beach.”
Now a junior counselor, Measha helps Dortch with organization, securing bikes during destination tours and lunch breaks, and keeping a watchful eye on the other kids.
“When we’re on the road, Mr. Dortch is in the front and I’m in the back. If one of the kids has to stop or something breaks, it’s my job to help them fix it and get moving,” Measha said. “It’s shown me how to be more responsible, how to look out for others.”
Aaliyah McFarland, who is 12 and in her second year with the program, came back this summer because of something most fitness-oriented camps don’t offer. “You get exercise, but you also get to see a lot of places you wouldn’t normally.” Places like the Field Museum, about which she said: “I learned a lot about history, about people and places I’d never heard of.”
On days when they aren’t on their bikes, the kids often head to Altgeld Park for organized youth sports. “The Cycling Voyagers have a basketball team, record 22-5,” Dortch said. “We’re playing teams of older kids, teams with guys that are six-and-a-half feet tall. But we can win because we work as a team.”
Team training is also important for safety reasons. The riding column has very strict safety rules because, biker-friendly as Chicago is, you can’t be too careful. “Every year we get new helmets at a discount from Bell Sports,” Dortch said. “We wear gold t-shirts when we’re riding, use the Chicago Bicycle Book as a safety basis, and always signal left and right.”
The program receives grants from LISC as well as local support from Wallace Catfish Corner restaurant in East Garfield Park, which provides discount meals for the kids. But things have gotten tight in recent years.
“I don’t get a lot of East Garfield Park kids,” Dortch said. “They can’t afford to do the camp.” Participants must have their own bicycles to join, and grant money – for a variety of economic reasons – has been diminishing since 2002. Prior to the cuts, the program was host to over a hundred riders.
Despite the waning numbers and financial issues, Dortch is optimistic about the future of the program, mostly because he and the campers enjoy it so much.
“I guess I just like to ride around Chicago with the kids,” he said. “We see the city, but my goal is really just to get the kids to smile.”