The women who live at Interim House, a recovery center in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood, have similar stories — harrowing and heartbreaking tales of abuse, addiction, prostitution and incarceration. Behind the stories they share something even deeper, and much harder to heal: a lack of self-esteem and the need to belong somewhere, to be productive.

Kristin Gavin believes the best way to move these women forward is to literally get them moving. Her vehicle of choice: a bicycle. Two to three times a week, Gavin and her team of staff and volunteers from Gearing Up, a nonprofit she founded in 2009, hop on their bikes and ride with women from Interim House and other recovery programs in the area. As they cruise along the Philadelphia streets, riding together in solidarity, strengthening their bodies, feeling the wind on their faces, and sharing an hour or two of freedom from stress and the past, their lives are often profoundly changed.

“These women are marginalized and very socially isolated,” says Gavin. “We’ve found that the bicycle is the ultimate vehicle for re-engaging women in the community. They’re making friends with each other in a way they wouldn’t if they were just at a recovery house not doing something together. They’re also making relationships with our staff and volunteers. It helps them feel normal and a part of something.”

Gearing Up’s unique program helps fuel these transformations by rewarding mileage milestones. After a woman rides her first 10 miles she receives a water bottle, after 25 miles she gets a Gearing Up T-shirt, and after 100 miles she earns her own bike. For many of the women, achieving these milestones is their first taste of real success.

“There’s this tangible sense of accomplishment,” says Gavin. “It increases their self-esteem and their belief in their ability to accomplish something, when perhaps for the past five or 10 years they have ‘failed.’” Many go on to enroll in school and find jobs.

Gearing Up group at a stop sign

Bicycling bonds

Gavin, an avid cyclist herself and a former mountain-bike and cyclocross racer, first noticed the profound physical, psychological and spiritual impact that bicycling could have when she lived in Seattle working as a bike tour guide.

“For these accomplished doctors, lawyers and other well-off folks, I was leading, seeing things and connecting with people from the seat of a bicycle was really different and transformative,” says Gavin. “People who didn’t have much in common bonded with one another. It really resonated with me, and I decided I wanted to do that in a way that’s more accessible to other people.”

In 2007, she headed to Philadelphia to get her master’s degree in exercise and sports psychology at Temple University, focusing on using body movement to treat anxiety and depression in women. A class project to write a nonprofit business plan ultimately led to the launch of Gearing Up. Gavin began at Interim House with five donated bikes, courtesy of Fuji Bikes, and has been expanding ever since.

Gearing Up riders are now such a familiar sight around the city they were even featured in a short 2012 documentary called "Braking Cycles," directed by Steve McWilliams and Matthew Marencik.

Cycling behind bars

For Gavin, 32, bicycling isn’t just for women on their way out of the criminal justice system. It’s also for those still caught inside. “Nationally, women gain somewhere in the ballpark of 40 pounds in the first 12 months of incarceration,” she says. In response, she started an indoor cycling program for inmates at Philadelphia County Women’s Prison in 2011. Those who complete the eight-week course (14 hour-long sessions riding stationary spin bikes) receive certificates of completion and are invited to continue for the rest of their incarceration.

Researchers at Temple University are currently studying the health and psychological impacts of the program, which Gavin believes could be replicated in prisons everywhere. Earlier research shows that dedicated participants not only pack on fewer pounds, but also report feeling less irritated, less sad, and better able to accomplish things. And, like their Gearing Up sisters on the outside, their lives are often transformed as well.

“Some women aren’t very nice to us at first or don’t talk at all,” says Gavin. “But when they see that we’re there to genuinely provide an opportunity to ride a bicycle and are doing it from a place of love and compassion and acceptance, there are lots of hugs. We are embraced and appreciated in a way that is just so heart-exploding.”

The power of a shared idea

Gavin recently headed back to school to get her MBA at Villanova University to learn skills that will help her continue steering Gearing Up forward. These days, her head is swimming with lessons on financial management, strategic planning and staff development. But her mission remains the same — to transform lives together with the multitude of helping hands that have magically materialized over the years.

“What’s really been humbling and transformative for me is that other people believe in this as well,” Gavin says. “I created a platform for others to bring this to life in their own magical, powerful way. Once you provide that little bit of space, people have so much to offer in this world.”

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