It was just a month ago that our loan recipient, Wash Cycle Laundry, won “2012 Best Laundry Service” from Philadelphia Magazine. This week, it won the annual Pacesetter Award from Gearing Up, a non-profit providing women in transition from abuse, addiction, and/or incarceration with the skills, equipment, and guidance to safely ride a bicycle for exercise, transportation, and personal growth. Way to go!
One of Wash Cycle Laundry’s bikers is a Gearing Up graduate. Following is a talk she delivered at Gearing Up’s award ceremony. Her story conveys courage and moxie as well as speaking to the amazing job opportunities created by our foundation’s loan recipients:
My name is CheneAmelie. I am a graduate of the Gearing Up Program. I am also a cyclist for Gabe and the Wash Cycle Laundry Team. SO, seems perfect to be talking here tonight and bringing my biking circles together.
June 17th, 2011, I became a resident at Interim House – a long-term treatment center for women battling substance abuse. AND how I got there, I’m still uncertain if I made that choice to go or someone else decided for me. But that’s a story in itself. Regardless, this is where I met Kristin [director of Gearing Up] and learned of the program she was offering the women. About a month later I became part of Gearing Up.
One day, Kristin was taking the girls out for a ride and casually, yet enthusiastically, asked me if I wanted to join them on the next one. I’m certain, in my monotone voice and expressionless face, I quietly mumbled something along the lines of… “Sure”… with no emotion shown at all. BUT inside my head I was screaming at her: “Yes! I’ll go on a bike ride! Please get me out of this place! I’ll go anywhere! I’ll do anything…. Even if it’s just one of your ‘little bike rides’.”
Everyday at Interim House I was stuck and forced to deal with things I’d been avoiding for years. I had to confront my pain – my guilt – my regrets. I was broken down, torn apart, exposed and vulnerable. It didn’t feel good.
And so it began…I got on that bike to escape. And for the first time in a long time, it was a healthy escape. I couldn’t tell you the last time I was on a bike. If you’d have asked me, riding a bike was something kids do. My first ride was one mile down the road and back. Kristin had no doubt in me…and so my second ride was ten miles along the Wissahickon Creek. Still, to this day, my favorite ride. One mile or 10…I was hooked. I craved these bike rides. It was a break from confronting reality and the life that I had gotten stuck in. But also a chance to see beautiful Mt. Airy during the summer months…to experience the amazing feeling of the wind in your face as you coast down a hill. The rush of adrenaline…the Long, Slow, Deep breaths taking in the fresh air. A true sense of freedom. A true sense of gratitude. I began to learn that biking wasn’t just something kids do but it’s something you do to feel like a kid. I was into it – 100% – and I must have expressed a little bit of enthusiasm – my parents showed up to visit one day with a pair of biking shorts for me.
And so it continued…I’m not always big into socializing, but during the rides Kristin and the Gearing Up staff have casual conversations with the girls. “How’s your day?” “How’s the bike?” “Are you comfortable in that gear?” “Should we raise your saddle?”
One day Kristin pedaled alongside me. She was attempting to start a conversation with the one who didn’t talk much. She told me, in a careful way, that she had not met someone like me in these circumstances before. She told me it took courage to choose to handle the situation as I was. And because of that…she told me she respected me. “Respected Me.” I hadn’t heard that — ever, I don’t think. She made me feel good about myself. She had no judgment of my past. She gave me the confidence and reassurance that I was lacking and had been lacking for years. This is when we weren’t talking about that bike anymore. We were talking about me and my life.
And so that began…me and my confident, cocky self rekindling its way back into the light. Poor Nancy – this is when she took over riding with us. “Chene slow down.” “Chene put your hands on the handle bars.” “Chene put your feet on the pedals.” “Chene get out of the middle of the road.” “Chene…Chene… Chene!” How grateful I was for these women who were dedicating their time to us. To help us. They cared. They didn’t have to do this. They believed in us and they believed in the power of a bicycle.
I want to be able to explain what the bike does for a person…but I don’t know how to. There is, of course, the science to it: the release of endorphins and its effect on the body. The power you feel inside yourself. The calming and quieting of your mind. The accomplishment of a hard but completed ride. I can however, simply explain what Gearing Up does. A dedicated staff helps to motivate women through transitional periods in their lives using basic tools.
I graduated the Gearing Up program receiving one of my most prized possessions…Gary, as I call my bike (which is a Gary Fisher). Gary is the bike I brought back to life during the Build-A-Bike Program with Neighborhood Bike Works. Time and again people have confused Gary as the man in my life as I speak of him often. When things don’t feel good and something is off, Gary and I spend quality time together – just him and I. I feel better every time. Guaranteed. Then again, that is the kind of man you want in your life!
Even after graduating, Gearing Up has remained part of my life. I think of Kaelin and Kristin sometimes as sisters. They are always there for me…get a bite to eat, talk, offer advice or just listen to me whine…they are there. When I was looking for part-time work, they were the connection.
Since becoming a cyclist for Gabe and the Wash Cycle crew, there have been some tougher situations to deal with on the bike. No longer is it a carefree cruise through the woods admiring the scenery and taking in the fresh air. It’s become…sometimes…a time crunching sprint, through traffic, pulling hundreds of pounds, uphill – both ways – while breathing in SEPTA bus fumes. Crazy, huh? It’s challenging, and sometimes things can seem a little overwhelming.
A man asked me a few weeks ago in a carport on Columbus Blvd, “How do you do it?” I told him it gets easier with time. He asked me again, “But when it just gets too hard and too heavy and your body just can’t do it anymore, then what?” I tell this man, “That’s when you thank God that you have 2 legs and they work and you ARE physically able and capable of doing it.”
There is not one day that goes by when I am put in some trivial situation that I don’t think of my brother-in-law, Dustin. Dustin lost a battle to ALS at the age of 26. Dustin was more deserving than most people I know in this world to live a full and happy life. After being diagnosed, he quickly became a prisoner inside of his own body. His mind fully functioning, but his body not responding. Dustin would take any one of my worst days and live it every day, gratefully just to be here again.
I thought of Dustin as I answered that man. He told me it was a good way to look at things. WELL… wouldn’t you know… it wasn’t 5 minutes later that I left that carport that the heavens opened up and it was pouring flooding amounts of rain so heavy I could barely see. Here I was riding a bike towing laundry. I guarantee, Dustin did that to me. Put me back in my place. He’s good for that. If I’m going to talk like I’ve got all the answers, I better mean what I say…and there I was, in the pouring rain, on a bike, towing laundry, uphill – both ways – with no other choice but to be grateful that I could do it.
Riding a bike is a great metaphor for living life – especially the one I’m living. I had been stuck in a hole going nowhere, and I saw no way out. It’s slow and hard work to get out and to climb up that hill with obstacles to overcome. But I can now, as time continues to pass, I can always turn around and see how far I’ve climbed, how far I’ve traveled.
There is, of course, the road ahead. There always is. To be honest, I don’t know where the road is taking me. I STILL, at my age, don’t know what I’m doing in this world. But unlike before, at least I’m moving. As Albert Einstein once said of riding a bike, “In order to stay balanced, you must keep moving.”
And so I do – with a newfound sense of gratitude, hope, and perseverance. Whether it’s pedal strokes on a bike or one foot in front of the other on the sidewalk, I keep moving. And at the very least, with the continued support from Gearing Up, I’m moving in the right direction.
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” -Susan B. Anthony, 1820-1906, abolitionist and leader of the American women’s suffrage movement.