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Children journey into a new world
With 40 free bikes, Rail-to-Trail Conservancy encourages youths to explore eight-mile path

By Timothy Wilson
Thursday, October 29, 2009

In the fast-moving digital age, it's safe to assume that video game consoles, MP3 players and cellphones might be at the top of most children's wish list. But those devices probably have not eclipsed the excitement children have when receiving their first bicycle.

More than 30 children gathered Friday afternoon at Beacon House to receive a new bicycle from the Rail-to-Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating public trails, and their enthusiasm could hardly be contained.

"I know you guys are excited, but we're going to get to the bikes," said Morissa Hargrove, a coordinator for teen programs at Beacon House, a community-based organization in Northeast Washington.

The nonprofit group provided 40 bicycles, locks and helmets through its Metropolitan Grants Program, which is funded by the Coca-Cola Foundation.

After a lesson on helmet safety, Malik Lawson, 11, was first in line to make his choice. He picked a black, eight-speed mountain bike. With some assistance from Hargrove, he sat on his new bicycle and quickly took off.

"Squeeze your brakes," shouted Glen Harrison, a safety instructor for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, as the remaining cyclists followed Malik. "Make sure the brakes work!"

Aaron Williams, 9, didn't have a problem with the brakes on his bicycle. He had a more pressing concern. "Excuse me? Can someone help me put my seat down?" he asked.

As soon as Keith Laughlin, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, adjusted the seat to a suitable height, Aaron took off to join the others who had left him behind.

Laughlin said the bicycles were given to encourage use of the newly constructed Metropolitan Branch Trail, an eight-mile walking and bicycle trail from Silver Spring to Union Station.

"Part of our mission is building these trails," Laughlin said. "People fully appreciate the value of these trails."

A quarter-mile segment of the trail from Franklin Street to the Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Center opened this month. The remaining portion, between Rhode Island Avenue and R Street, is scheduled to be completed next month, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation.

The Rev. Donald E. Robinson, founder and president of Beacon House, said access to the trail should benefit the District's newest cyclists. "For some of them, it's the first bike that they've owned," Robinson said. "They can get downtown without costing them money."

Neither getting downtown nor to the trail was the immediate choice for some cyclists. One had a specific place in mind.

"Can we go home now?" Malik asked.

After getting a nod of approval from a volunteer, he took off once again, this time to a more familiar destination.

"I'm excited for these kids," said Jan Feuchtner, 30, co-owner of Oasis Bike Works in Fairfax, who provided the wheels.

Feuchtner said his shop will provide free monthly maintenance on the bicycles at Beacon House for one year. "Where was this when I needed a bike?" he asked.

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