If you are driving along this weekend in Plainview, Neb., or Sioux City, Iowa, and see eight teenagers led by a man with a ponytail on bicycles and your reaction is “Huh?,” you probably are not alone.
The group is in the middle of a 39-day cross-country journey that will cover more than 3,000 miles. And while the miles – and miles and miles – are awe-inspiring, it’s the meaning behind the miles that matter.
The trip is a 10th anniversary milestone for Pittsburgh Youth Leadership, founded in 2005 by a criminal defense attorney who says he spent years working with the “baddest of the bad” and wanted to help make a difference for at-risk youth in his hometown.
“When we’re out there, it seems like it’s all about cycling,” says PYL founder Mark Rubenstein. “What we’re doing really has nothing to do with cycling.
“It’s about building character, values, goal-oriented behavior, success, life choices, mentoring, going on to college, employment, the military, and it’s been by and large a great success.”
According to PYL, its participants have an 89 percent graduation rate. The national average is 80 percent and 74 percent for economically disadvantaged youth, according to Department of Education statistics.
While 50 percent of PYL’s overall participants take two or fewer trips, more than a quarter of the organization’s students ride on 12 or more. and Rubenstein touts the retention rate of those who take part as part of the organization’s success. A third come back for a second year and almost 10 percent participate for four consecutive years.
The eight teens on the current journey have been with the group for several years, many since they were in junior high, and this voyage is a culmination of local training runs and shorter trips over the past few summers. More than half already had logged at least 2,000 miles before leaving for the start in Seaside, Ore., on June 14. The finish is July 21 in New Jersey.
In all, the organization’s participants have cycled more than 165,000 miles and been to 44 states, averaging about eight trips per year. This, by far, is its most ambitious journey.
“These are kids who want to do something with their lives,” Rubenstein says of the young people who join the organization. “Most kids just want to sleep all summer or hang out on the corner, and in different neighborhoods, they could be slinging crack on the corner by this age. But when some old, white dude says, ‘Hey, do you want to cycle across the country?’ The first reaction is, ‘Be serious.’
“But these are the kids who want to go, and I think in years down the road, those are the kids who, by and large, are going to be successful.”
On this trip, the group that also includes three staff members will ride at least 100 miles on 10 of the 39 days and has done more than 1,600 miles so far. This week, they will ride in Moingona Ledges State Park in Iowa; see the Mississippi River in Clinton, Iowa; ride through Shabbona Lakes State Park in Oswego, Ill.; and see the renowned Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. Next week, they will celebrate the 10th anniversary in Findley Lake, N.Y.
“All kids still going strong with enthusiasm,” Rubenstein wrote in an email. “There have been long days with plenty of miles, but the sights have been just tremendous.”
Newcomers to the organization don’t know what they are getting into, but the training runs help show which students are able and dedicated enough for the longer trips. Rubenstein and his staff would rather find out at home rather than the middle of South Dakota whether a student can handle the rigors.
“Even the people that know I cycle are just dumbfounded by just the immensity of this trip,” said Diondre “Dre” Farris, one of the teens on the trip. “And when I tell people who don’t know much about cycling, and have only ever cycled around their neighborhood, I don’t think they can picture it.”
“It’s interesting because I’m as surprised as they are that, like we’re actually doing it.”
Burgeoning filmmakers hope to turn the journey into a documentary to show the impact of the program and inspire other groups around the nation. The filmmakers are checking in with the group at various stops and asking the riders to use Snapchat and other means to film themselves as well.
In many ways, the trip is emblematic of the organization Rubenstein founded after a cycling trip across Canada with his wife and son. The walls of his law office in downtown Pittsburgh serve as an archive of what the organization has become with Rubenstein proudly pointing out pictures with groups of kids in far-off destinations as he talks about the program. The law office doubles as the organization’s headquarters.
He had three requirements when he tried to figure out a way to help a decade ago: It had to have a do-gooder quality. It had to be active – Rubenstein says he also has run 100 marathons — and it had to be outdoors.
With financial support from friends, he sponsored trips and eventually formed a charity that has gotten funding from foundations and other sources. Over the past five years, the organization has raised more than $280,000. He says 12-15 foundations provide grants of varying sizes and 70-80 individuals donate to help fund the program. Among the many major sponsors are the American Eagle Outfitters Foundation, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Eat ‘N Park Hospitality Group, PNC Bank Charitable Trust and Peoples Natural Gas Company.
There is no cost to any of the students who are provided with the bikes and equipment for use on the trip.
Rubenstein says his best source of participants initially were middle school guidance counselors. Then came church groups, community centers, word of mouth and now the Internet. “We look at eighth grade going into ninth, because the child is strong enough to cycle long distances, but isn’t old enough to have some terrible habits or attitudes,” Rubenstein says.
The organization, whose student population is 81 percent African-American over the 10-year history, has no more than 25 students at one time and rarely takes more than 10-11 on a single trip.
“With very rare exceptions, none of these kids had ever cycled more than down to their buddy’s house down the street, in a beat-up Schwinn,” Rubenstein says of those who hear his initial pitch.
“The limited experiences were just astounding. And their knowledge and vision of the future was extremely limited, because their world was tiny. So you take a kid like that and put him on a bicycle in Glacier National Park and crossing Montana, it opens up a lot of ideas and thinking and vision and potentials.”
‘I’m not at-risk anymore … ‘
Cody Wagner, 18, proudly wears his championship ring from winning the city football championship for Brashear High in the Beechview section just south of downtown Pittsburgh. He also won two city wrestling titles at 195 pounds and placed in the top 15 in Western Pennsylvania as a senior.
But it doesn’t take much for him to see what seemed like the inevitable just a few years ago. His father was never in his life. His mother – “my best friend” — died when he was 11. There were times when there was no dinner at night.
“I lived a different life then – there’s no easy way to say it – it was the ‘hood,” he said. “I grew up around just bad influences – and I was on the way to – not to be successful, possibly dying or ending up in jail – but then I moved in with my grandparents.
“They gave me a bedtime – it sounds so silly, but even that bedtime was enough for a person to start to find out what you need to be successful. Everything I needed – clothes, food, cable, like they never once said no to me, and then it’s just all the other little small things.”
Wagner’s grandparents were wary when Wagner brought up that he wanted to join this cycling group that he heard about from Farris. Rubenstein showed up for a meeting in shorts and a T-shirt after a run with what Wagner calls “a ponytail and beard like a hippie.” With understandable suspicion, his grandparents feared there was some catch with Rubenstein offering to take kids on these trips for free.
“Their reaction was like ridiculous (at first),” he says. “But when they met him, there’s this authenticity about Mark. It was like, you can trust this guy. Like he didn’t send off a bad vibe. He really cared about the kids.”
Entering the cross-country trip, Wagner had logged 3,465 miles in 19 states since his “rookie” year in 2012.
Those miles have been many things to him – an inspiration, a time for reflection, a chance to influence younger people from similar situations, a means to bond with those he now considers lifelong friends.
“I was still depressed when I moved in with my grandparents and was having tough times,” he says. “The trips, you’re not by yourself but you’re by yourself. You get to work out your own problems along with others if you need it.
“I’m not an at-risk youth anymore, but I’ve seen where these kids come from and this is like something that I feel is justice. I have an opportunity to be a part of a young man’s life somewhere else in a different part of the country where he needs us and cycling. I can save him. I see a younger version of me …
“There are a lot of places I could be right now, but I’m not,” says Wagner, who will attend Thiel College in the fall. “I’m perfectly happy with where I am and excited for everything the future has for me.”
‘I’m glad I found these trips’
Mentchaas Anderson, 17, saw Rubenstein’s presentation at his middle school, marveled at the photos of the places the group had been and thought he’d like traveling. Add that a close friend was involved and participation was free and Anderson figured he had nothing to lose.
After his parents met Rubenstein, they gave their blessing. Entering the summer, Anderson has ridden 3,553 miles in three years and been to 19 states. Using his love for cycling, Anderson works after school in a bike shop.
“These trips have taught me a lot of things that I carry into the way I am now and the things I do today, like every day life,” he says. “It takes things like, hard work pays off, and puts it into literal terms.
“My Dad has constantly beat that into us, like just hard work pays off, and these trips – actually like biking up mountains – like all the sweat and tears you put into biking up a mountain, and then you are literally rewarded for your hard work with a beautiful vista and a panorama of just other mountains. It’s just beautiful. It helped me hone my determination and attitude toward things.”
Anderson lives in the Mount Oliver section of Pittsburgh and says others in his neighborhood doesn’t see the value in what he’ doing. “It’s not really socially accepted for me to bike and be really into this, but that’s just the type of neighborhood I live in,” he says. But he’s stuck with it.
“My dad and my mother raised a fairly good kid,” he says. “I definitely have a lot of potential to do like anything I wanted, and I’m just happy my potential was used for me doing something very positive. But I could see, if I would have met the wrong group of people, being in the neighborhood that I’m in, there’s a slight possibility that I could have been in a bad situation later on in life, but I’m glad I found Mark and these trips.”
‘I could have easily slipped into the wrong path’
Farris is among the longest-tenured members of this group on the trip. Farris joined the organization in 2010, has been to 26 states and logged 4,403 miles. The person who got him into the group, Lawrence Davis, also will make the journey.
Ask Farris what he would have done without all the trips and all the miles and he says, “I couldn’t tell you, but I could definitely could tell you I would have spent a lot more time doing not much of anything.”
Farris, 18, from the city’s Mount Washington section, graduated from Brashear this spring and played running back and linebacker on the same city championship football team as Wagner. Farris concedes that he’s had trouble in school, trying to stay focused and applying himself. He says the cycling trips have helped him a chance to step back, re-evaluate his steps and “make sure I’m doing what I want to be doing.”
“I definitely believe I could have easily slipped into the wrong path for sure,” says Farris, who plans to attend community college in the fall. “I got a lot of friends that have kind of lost their way and gotten into all kinds of violence and all that stuff. And so if (cycling) didn’t set me apart from them not much else would have, so it definitely kept me out of that.”
While Farris admits the cycling helps fuel him athletically, it’s the social interaction that he says makes it even more worthwhile and keeps him coming back. As an elder statesmen, he also is inspired by the fact the younger kids look up to him.
“With any other sport you’re not necessarily going from place to place and experiencing different people,” he says. “With these trips you’re like in a hotel room every night with a few different kids that you may not necessarily have met before, and so the bonding is a lot different.
“I value the appreciation that everyone gives me. I definitely feed off that for sure. It’s really motivational. I think the younger kids always look up to you, too, so if you have people chasing you it gives you kind of a reason to keep going. And it’s kind of like a symbiotic relationship.”
‘It’s really changed the way I see the world’
If you don’t see the group on the road, you might get to see them on film thanks to Dan Finegold, Josh Eisenfeld and their 4Twelve Pictures. Both have taken part in past PYL trips as staff members and have had the vision of making a documentary for some time.
They have spent the last two years working on a documentary about a team of doctors in Pittsburgh working on a cure for Type 1 diabetes and also have done commercials, music videos and a short documentary for Ohio University that won a regional Emmy.
Finegold started working at Pittsburgh Youth Leadership when he was 18 and has been best friends with Rubenstein’s son since he was 10. He knows the people, the organization and the cause, and he intends to share that through a documentary about the summer journey titled “Conquering the Cycle.”
Using a combination of techniques, drones and contributions from the cyclists themselves, they hope to put together a full-length documentary.
“These kids are on Snapchat all day, so I’ve told them, ‘Take that, and like film yourselves with your camera phones, and let’s like gather footage, and let’s make this a collective process,’” Finegold says. “They’re all really jazzed up about it and are really having fun with it.”
As a staffer at PYL, Finegold has logged his share of miles, too – more than 3,000 in 14 states since 2009. He has worked on the website, helped on trips, stayed in touch with a lot of kids. He was at the high school graduations in June for a several PYL students who have grown up in front of him.
“Watching them succeed and watching the character that they’ve built through this, and being able to kind of share that through this film seems really exciting to me,” he says. “They’re all great people, and they’ve inspired me a lot.
“My life hasn’t been a struggle like the way theirs have, and I feel like knowing them has really been a big inspiration to me. And it’s really changed the way I see the world.”
Rubenstein has been texting Finegold the word, “Sundance,” a reference to one day seeing the film of this journey at the famed film festival.
“I think if you can share what something like this does with the rest of the country, it could really make an impact nationally and help people know that changing their lives is within their power,” Finegold said. “You can do anything you can set your mind to. I’m proud of these kids and I hope we can share that with everyone.”
Ideally, Rubenstein says, exposure or the film could lead people in other cities to replicate the concept in Pittsburgh. Rubenstein is not playing a role in the film’s production.
“The goal is pretty clear of the film – that is to create the impetus for other cities and other people to utilize our concept so that there’s an exponential growth in kids having this opportunity,” he says. “Because our success has been big, and the kids have really prospered from the concept.
“I can’t say I’m the only one, but I just don’t know of any others with this type of concept. And if it can work here and get backed by the community so that the kids can have the opportunity than why couldn’t it work elsewhere?”