Cycling back into society

The Wing of Love NGO helps troubled teens gain respect for themselves and others.

bike feat 88  (photo credit: )
bike feat 88
(photo credit: )
Each boy has a bike. Once or twice a week, they go out riding in the countryside with one of their counselors. They chase each other along the dusty trails, struggle up hills, let off steam and let go of tension. They mend punctures, fix breaks, fine-tune gears, and stop to help others in need. The teenagers live in a hostel in Gedera operated by Wing of Love, a nonprofit organization founded three years ago to help rehabilitate youths with special needs. The NGO aims to train its youngsters to be productive and responsible citizens. Some are day students (17-21 year-olds) in their final years of special education; others - those who ride bikes - are young offenders and boys at risk (aged 15-17) in full-time care, by court order. Wing of Love's rehabilitation program is their last chance to avoid prison - and they know it. The boys study and work in the organization's ecological wildlife park adjoining Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in the northern Negev, where they care for the animals and their environment, develop respect for wildlife and other people, speak politely and proudly guide visitors such as school groups, families and business people. The park, a 30-dunam oasis of greenery and wildlife, is home to more than 100 species of mammals and fowl, including flamingos, pheasants, waterfowl, parrots, cranes, peacocks, canaries, emus, deer, wallabies and monkeys. The organization's name arose from the large number of winged creatures on the grounds, where rehabilitation and conservation are carried out with love. The rich metaphor in the name conveys the shelter it provides, the journey out of distress, improvisation over each new challenge and a readiness to help out at the right time. Happiness, new ideas and activities are blossoming and it is hoped that, in another year or two, the boys will indeed take wing as responsible citizens. The boys, from different corners of Israel, were referred to the hostel by juvenile courts and the social services. They ride with local cyclists and have joined Groopy, a community of cyclists with a terrific sense of humor and goodwill. Their outings after work, at night, on weekends or during holidays appear on the Groopy Web site ( Ran Rod is one of the Groopy crowd. His yellow shirt shows that he is a qualified bike teacher, youth and cycling guide. His riding shoes, tight pants, tanned face and shaved head give him a strong, streamlined, masculine look, and his helmet has a little microphone so the group can hear his instructions. Rod, a volunteer, spends many hours with the boys, teaching them the tricks of getting about on two wheels on all terrains. He is a role model for the boys, who obey his every word. Rod also teaches them the art of repair. With the help of fellow Groopies, he has collected many second-hand bikes, and the boys worked on them to put each one in good working condition. One Wednesday night, Adi, another Groopy, arrived at the hostel with a large trailer, loaded 40 bicycles into the trailer and delivered them to a secret address in Tel Aviv, a shelter for battered women and their children. The following afternoon, the boys from the hostel and Groopies made their way to the location, a big house with a lovely green lawn and a locked gate, surrounded by a high hedge. The women have run away from violence at home. The boys know about such violence - that's why they live in the hostel; but, of course, no one talked about this. Tali, a social worker at the shelter, and Groopy volunteers Navah Ronen, Shlomo, Lilian, Zeev and Liat helped each woman and child find a suitably sized bike. The cycling enthusiasts, in their biking shorts and streamlined helmets, helped adjust the height of seats and make sure that each participant could ride safely and comfortably. The boys, women and their children made their way to Yarkon Park in north Tel Aviv, where their first stop was a cut-rate boat ride in Ganei Yehoshua. No one fell into the water, but Adi's trailer was nowhere to be seen. Yet with the help of a few private cars doing several round trips, all the bikes and helmets were in the park by the time everyone was back on dry land. "Come on, let's go!" "Move on now!" The kids were excited. More Groopies joined the group, some with their children, and Rod's helmeted three-year-old climbed onto the little seat on the back of his father's bike. By this time it was dark, but lights and laughter bounced off the Yarkon water. The party set out along the river in the direction of the sea. At the end of the path they discovered a Dr. Lek ice cream parlor. Bikes dropped to the ground and sweaty kids ran in. The parlor donated 40 scoops of ice cream, which somehow turned into about 200 scoops… leaving everyone thirsty. Nearby Max Brenner, the chocolate outlet that caters to prestigious hotels and gourmet stores, donated 40 cups of heavenly hot chocolate. With renewed energy, the cyclists set out along the river on the return journey. A sandwich dinner and balloons (on special discount from Kfar Hasha'ashuim in Ramat Hahayal) awaited them. The shelter children presented thank-you letters to each hostel youth, as well as to Rod and Ronen. And then it was time for bed. But who could sleep after such fun? The Groopies opened their computers and logged on to their Web site's chat group. "A huge Thank You to the hostel boys who helped us mend the bikes with Ran in Gedera," came out in large red bold letters at 22:56 from 'Navoush.' And she went on about the boys: "You are wonderful, each one of you, and it was a pleasure to get to know you." One minute later, in red again: "Sweetest thanks to the fantastic kids in the shelter and to their mothers for all the love and patience you revealed all along the path tonight. You are amazing. I have no words to say how wonderful you made us all feel today." Rod returned home, put his son to bed and joined the forum after midnight. "It was amazing! I am so moved. The boys outdid themselves. They helped transport the bikes, led the group along the path, and kept the group together… I was moved by the thanks I received and by the smiles and happiness on the boys' faces. These boys are in the hostel because they did something bad to society. They have learned a lesson and have given of themselves to do something good for society. Now they feel appreciated and have gained praise. May they continue in this way and return to the right path through life," he wrote. He went on to thank each person by name who contributed to this event in one way or another. Additional appreciative messages popped up on the screen in large letters, with graphics of hearts, smiles, thumbs up, and kisses illustrating the comments. Tali logged on at 1:23 a.m. to thank everyone for helping and participating, with personal notes to each one, before adding: "Tonight the women and children in the shelter went to sleep with smiles on their lips for a change. Maybe tonight they'll have sweet dreams… and all thanks to you!" Then there was quiet. Everyone needed to sleep. But Ronen was back online at 5:25 and others soon followed. By 9 a.m. the hostel boys had logged on for the first time and posted their message with a thumbs-up image: "Good morning to all you Groopies. We are delighted to be part of your wonderful community. We want to thank all the people who made the happening last night possible. A special thanks to Ran Rod for all his efforts, time and goodwill. We all love you terribly." With the help of Rod and his Groopies, the boys may keep out of trouble forever and turn into good citizens. With Wing of Love, the bicycle enthusiasts are showing other youth workers how to lead many more disadvantaged children toward a new and better life.