Bike Lady program provides bicycles to local foster children

GALA PARTICIPANTS — Taking temporary possession of 25 brand new bikes, bike helmets and locks for children in foster care in Jefferson County are, from left, Jefferson County Children Services Program Administrator Raymond Robinson; Betty Ferron, director of Juvenile & Family Services; and Tracey Dailey, adoption associate. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — Twenty-five children in foster care here in Jefferson County have brand new bicycles, helmets and bike locks, thanks to the statewide Bike Lady charity run by a former foster mom.

Bike Lady — her real life name is Katie Koch — began almost by accident. Koch had been a foster mom in Franklin County, but when her circumstances changed and she could no longer foster she wanted to continue to help kids at their most vulnerable.

“I only intended to do it the one time,” she said.

That “one time” thing was 11 years and more than 11,000 bikes ago.

“It’s all through private and corporate donations,” she said. “There’s no grant money or anything.”

Koch said she decided to gift kids with bikes because most people don’t realize what it can mean to a child living in foster care. She points out many children are there not because of anything they did, “but because an adult failed them in a huge way.”

“I think a bike is a pretty positive childhood memory,” she said. “Generally, everybody remembers their first bike, it’s a rite of passage. It would break my heart to think a child didn’t have that memory just because they’re in foster care.”

She said it’s particularly important for older foster kids who, because they don’t have a permanent address and are in the care of the state of Ohio, don’t qualify for driving privileges.

“A bicycle for a teenager in foster care means transportation, and transportation is an opportunity — an opportunity to be on a team, an opportunity to be in an after-school club, get a part-time job or go to the library,” she said. “And opportunity is a chance to defy statistics.”

Koch and other volunteers purchase the bikes unassembled, then take them to a correctional center where young inmates serving time for felonies put them together. Before the bike leaves the assembly area the offenders have to write letters to the recipients of each of the bikes.

“Really, it’s a vehicle to just have fellowship, mentoring, conversations with them,” Koch admits. “We bring in food, so we can have a meal together…fresh veggies, fresh fruit, candy … things they would never have otherwise. And each one of those teenagers has to write a letter that goes with the bike’s they assemble. They’ll tell them things like, “stay in school’ and ‘Hey, I know life is hard right now, but stick it out, have hope and make good choices and whatever you do, don’t end up in prison.’

“Hopefully, at least one or two kids read their letter and it motivates them to make positive choices,” she said.

Koch said prison administrators told her they use the Bike Lady project as a reward for good behavior.

“I’ve had offenders say on bike assembly days they feel human again, they feel like they’re doing something positive,” Koch said. “And I’ve had administrators in the institutions say…that’s one day where everyone is happy. That’s really something good coming out of that partnership.”

Koch, though, said she had to scale back the gifting when she realized Bike Lady had grown too big for her to handle alone and she couldn’t find anyone to take over. In 2017, the group delivered more than 1,900 bikes to 48 Ohio counties; last year they passed out just 400.

Koch said her mission now is to deliver bikes to children in 20 counties Bike Lady hadn’t previously served, including Jefferson County. She figures Bike Lady Inc. will have been to them all by the end of the year.

Jefferson County Children Services staff was excited to see the bikes roll in to their building.

“Hopefully the kids who get these bikes will get home at some point,” said Program Administrator Raymond Robinson. “But, as new kids come into foster care, I can see us reaching out again.”

Robinson said getting a new bike is a great feeling for any kid, “but it’s especially (great) for kids who often go without things.”

“We make sure their foster parents can provide for their basic needs, but a bike isn’t a basic need,” he said, adding it’s the kind of thing that makes caregivers and caseworkers as happy as the kids they serve.

“We do hear a lot of bad stories, so when you get a good one like this, it really makes you feel good,” he adds.

Koch is hoping the bikes change the lives of the children who get them: Of the teens in foster care who age out without being reunited with a healthy family or without being adopted before 21, “something like 90 percent will either end up dead, drug addicted, homeless or incarcerated,” she said. “That’s insane.”

And one of the things Koch said bothers her the most about having to scale the Bike Lady operation back, “besides not serving as many kids, is that we’re not giving offenders as many opportunities to give back to the community.”

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