Harrison Barnes, 17, of Bridgeville, Delaware, a senior at Woodbridge High School, founded a nonprofit organization called “GearUp” that promotes bicycle riding as a way for young people to overcome personal challenges. He does this by refurbishing and giving away free used bikes, offering prizes for reaching weekly cycling goals, hosting an annual multi-state bicycle event for children of military families, and mentoring young cyclists who have physical or developmental disabilities. When Harrison was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder as a young child, experts said he would probably not graduate from high school or ever become independent. But at age 12, his parents took him to a bicycle racetrack, “and a whole new world opened up for me,” he said. As he became a racing enthusiast, Harrison’s social and academic skills improved dramatically. Wondering if there really was a connection between bike riding and the challenges that come with having special needs, he researched the subject and discovered that kids who ride bikes regularly have improved self-esteem, confidence, social skills, communication abilities and school grades. “I decided I wanted to help make sure as many kids as possible could ride bikes,” he said.
To date, Harrison’s GearUp initiative has recruited mentors to help more than 150 children with disabilities enjoy the benefits of bike riding. He and his partners, plus numerous volunteers, have collected used bikes and refurbished them for kids who cannot afford to buy a bicycle. Last summer, over 120 kids in 20 states and three other countries signed up to ride at least 10 hours a week in GearUp’s Summer Bike Challenge, earning prizes and rewards provided by sponsors; plans are now underway for this year’s summer challenge. And at Harrison’s “Grab Life by the Bars” event, more than 300 volunteers in nine states helped 1,500 children from military families learn to ride bicycles. In total, GearUp initiatives have reached approximately 4,500 children. “Riding a bike can make a difference in the life of other kids just like it did for me,” he said.