Ebi Chuck tried to describe what it was like to see the monuments for the first time.
"I didn't know they were made of stone," he said. "I thought they were kind of different because I had seen them in cartoons and on the news."
Chuck isn't a tourist visiting the District on summer vacation. He is 15 and lives in Hyattsville, just a few miles from the Mall. But until he rode past the monuments--under his own power--as part of the Cycle Across Maryland's Teen Challenge program, Chuck rarely ventured far from his neighborhood.
In its 11th year, Cycle Across Maryland is a six-day, 300-mile bike ride that attracts approximately 1,000 cycling enthusiasts. Each year, a different part of the state is featured. This year's CAM takes place in western Maryland. The ride begins Saturday in Allegany County and travels through Rocky Gap State Park, along the C&O Canal, past Fort Frederick and the Antietam Battlefields and ends in Greenbrier State Park on July 30 (see accompanying map).
For the past eight years, CAM also has sponsored a Teen Challenge. The program targets at-risk youths and offers them an athletic summer alternative. The idea is to keep kids off the streets by having them bike through them as they head out on longer training rides into the country.
John Nelson, 56, began the Prince George's Teen Challenge program. Before coming here, he was involved in Teen Challenge in Montgomery County and has seen, over a few summers, how the program affects the riders. For Nelson, it's not just about the ride.
"I really do think the kids gain a lot of self-confidence and improved social skills as they interact with people outside of their own communities," he said. "A lot of them just become happier. That's hard to document, but you see kids who didn't smile a lot, all of a sudden they're smiling all the time."
New Bikes, New Challenges
The students are given used bikes to ride while in training and are paired with adult mentors who train with them every Saturday starting in April. Prior to going on the CAM ride, they receive brand new bicycles. As an incentive to stick with the program, they are allowed to keep the bikes if they complete CAM.
According to CAM Director Pat Bernstein, the idea to involve at-risk youth in the ride evolved from the adults wanting to pass along their sense of accomplishment to young people. The Teen Challenge is in eight of Maryland's 23 counties.
"The adult cyclists saw how challenging themselves physically changed the feeling they had about what they could accomplish," Bernstein said. "With CAM, you don't have to be a jock to accomplish it. It gives you this feeling of having done something extraordinary. . . . Then wouldn't this be a nice thing to do with kids?"
Nelson, a parent involvement specialist for county schools' ESOL program, started the Prince George's Teen Challenge program last year after serving as a mentor in the Montgomery County program. With the help of the Community Services Coalition--a grass roots organization that tries to steer youth away from drugs and alcohol--Nelson was able to put the Prince George's Teen Challenge together. It helped, of course, that Nelson also serves on the CSC's board of directors.
Nelson said this year's group of 19 was recruited by last year's inaugural group of 12.
"I just let the kids from last year's group do the recruiting for this year's with hopes they would bring in the same type of group," Nelson said. "That didn't happen, but they still brought in a great group. Kids from all over the map . . . Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cameroon, New Guinea, Cambodia, Vietnam."
Most of the teenagers are recent immigrants, which explains why a few have yet to see Washington's monuments.
Chuck, a native of Nigeria, boasts that he is the fastest rider in the group. However, Zeleke Sheke, an 18-year-old Ethiopian from Mount Rainier, is quick to disagree.
"We compete to see who rides faster," Chuck said. "[Zeleke] tries to catch up with me, but he can't."
Sheke protests: "Everybody knows. Everybody here knows."
On training rides, Nelson breaks the riders into groups based on their pace. He tries to remind the teenagers that it is not about being fast, but finishing. Ingrid Perez, a 20-year-old Bolivian from Adelphi, isn't afraid to admit she usually is put with the slowest riders.
"I'm always in the last group," she said.
On the first training ride the group took back in April, they rode 15 miles. For many of the teenagers, it seemed more like 50 miles.
"I had never ridden a bicycle before because my Dad said bikes were for boys," Perez said. "I was so tired. My legs, I couldn't move them."
Perez and her fellow riders recovered and returned to ride again the next week. And they continued to come back week after week.
"A lot of them are awed by the mileage," Nelson said. "A lot of them start out thinking they won't make it, but almost all of them do make it. For the most part, they stay with it because they like it week to week."
They all have reasons for why they continue to ride with the group, but most agree the main reason they do it is because it's fun. They all look forward to keeping their new dark red bikes. Sheke enjoys the challenge. Chuck likes the cookies they eat at the rest stops.
"My Mom doesn't let me eat too many cookies at home," he said.
After the first day, the hardest part has been the hills. None of them like riding up and down. It is the part that frustrates them the most.
"You talk so maybe you forget about the hill," Sheke said.
Added Azeez Aranmolate, a 15-year-old from Hyattsville: "Yeah, but once you get up the hill, you look about a mile and you see another one."
Pierre Summerville, a mentor from Fort Washington, wonders how the group will manage on the CAM terrain.
"They're really going to get challenged going into Cumberland," he said. "That's mountains. But I know they can do it."
Mentors Show the Way
Summerville, who is also the president of the Oxon Hill Bike Club, is a CAM veteran. This year, however, is his first as a mentor with the program. There are 12 adult mentors and four mentors-in-training--students who went through the program last year and returned to help.
"It's been a lifetime experience," Summerville said. "These kids are great. . . . I noticed they really enjoyed Washington. I grew up in Washington so I kind of take it for granted. I used to run up and down the monuments, but it's new to them. It's totally different for them. They need to see these things."
The riders seem to appreciate the mentors' efforts. Bernstein estimates that each mentor spends about 200 hours working with the teenagers.
"They're pretty nice, because they do a lot of work," Perez said. "They come to our house to pick us up each week."
More than just seeing new places and making new friends, the teenagers said nearly four months of training has changed them.
"It makes me feel powerful, strong," Sheke said.
As much as they are all looking forward to the CAM ride, it will be bittersweet. After it's over, there will be no more Saturday training rides, no more kidding about who is the fastest rider.
"I won't have to get up Saturday mornings," Summerville said with a laugh. "But I'll miss them. You get used to them. You know every Saturday morning we're going riding. When one of them is not there for whatever reason, you look forward to seeing them next week."
CAPTION: Samuel Lang, a freshman at Fairmont Heights High School, munches on a cookie during the halfway rest near Ronald Reagan National Airport on recent 25-mile training ride.
CAPTION: Aaron Bryant searches for his bicycle at Gwynn Park High School before the start of Saturday's 45-mile practice ride for the Cycle Across Maryland.
CAPTION: With an assist in helmet-strap adjustments, Candyce Jones, above, readies for the second half of a 25-mile ride on July 3. On Saturday, Jones and mentor John Nelson, below, will take part in the start of the six-day ride.
CAPTION: Nebiu Daniel, left, pedals uphill during Saturday's practice ride. Zeleke Shefaw and mentor Jeanne Ulrich, below, found the going easier along Route 301. Nineteen teenagers and their mentors will tackle the six-day, 300-mile Cycle Across Maryland on Saturday.