Bike Clark County pedals safety message to schools

Nonprofit aims to create more responsible young bicyclists

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Stephanie Vanveen stood at a makeshift intersection and watched as a couple dozen seventh-graders navigated on bicycles through the course.

For the afternoon, the sidewalks of Wy'east Middle School served as streets. Signs attached to plastic pipes showed students where to stop and yield. Cones edged the course.

As one student cruised down the sidewalk, another lurched from a stop sign and crossed into the girl's path.

"Our first wreck," Vanveen shouted. "That didn't take long."

They had been set loose on the course only minutes earlier.

Prior to their setting out, Vanveen had led the students through a series of drills on the outdoor basketball courts. Brake quickly at stop signs. Swerve to avoid rocks. Use hand signals before making left and right turns.

Eric Giacchino, founder of the nonprofit Bike Clark County, just hopes the messages stick and, as a result, create more responsible young bicyclists.

"Our mission is to advocate for a better, safer cycling community in Clark County," he said. "One way to do that is teach middle-schoolers to bike safer."

Giacchino, a Vancouver firefighter, launched the nonprofit organization last year. After years of volunteering with bicycle safety programs in Portland schools, he realized he needed to be doing the work in his own town.

He heard about two middle school teachers -- Vanveen and Biniam Afenegus at McLoughlin Middle School -- running bike safety units as part of their physical education classes. The programs were struggling, so Giacchino decided to take the reins.

He created Bike Clark County to run the programs and acquired a grant to buy two fleets of bicycles.

The middle schools offer a two-week bike safety unit each spring. In June, Giacchino will lead a weeklong after-school program at Hough Elementary School -- Bike Clark County's first program for younger kids.

Volunteers maintain the bikes and help supervise school bike safety units. Area bike groups donate helmets.

Giacchino has also partnered with Vancouver Public Schools and secured a $25,000 Safe Routes to School grant. The school district used the money to buy a fleet of bicycles and a bicycle trailer, and to send a handful of physical education teachers through training on bike and pedestrian safety.

Bike Clark County will help get the programs up and running at schools in the district and offer support by way of volunteers. Next fall, Giacchino plans to bring the program to Discovery Middle School. In the spring, he hopes to offer it at Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School.

Recognition

Giacchino's efforts caught the eye of the Clark County Health Department. Clark County commissioners recently recognized Giacchino with the 2012 Public Health Community Award.

But the work of Bike Clark County goes beyond just the schools.

Giacchino has coordinated and recruited volunteers to operate bicycle parking stations at local events such as the Six to Sunset concert series in downtown Vancouver and Fourth of July festivities at the Fort Vancouver National Site.

The volunteers also demonstrate simple repairs to bikes, such as changing flat tires, and hand out bike route maps.

"Bike Clark County's goal is really to create the bike-friendly community in Vancouver and Clark County that you have in other cities," Giacchino said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.