Some people take road trips to the beach during their summer vacations. Others might fly in air-conditioned comfort to foreign destinations.
Then there’s Mark Rubenstein, who takes disadvantaged youth on bicycle trips across the country.
An avid cyclist who has trekked across the United States and Canada with his family, Rubenstein, 56, felt that it was a tremendous growth experience for his children. Knowing that many low-income teenagers have never seen a mountain, lake or field, Rubenstein wanted to offer them the same opportunity.
So the criminal defense attorney from Swisshelm Park founded the nonprofit organization, Pittsburgh Youth Leadership, in 2006. Through his organization, he makes a positive difference in the lives of underprivileged teenagers.
Rubenstein’s mission is straight-
“Basically, it’s to give low income, inner city, at-risk kids an opportunity to accomplish great things, obtain better focus in life, work in group settings with kids from other neighborhoods, enhance their self esteem and return as positive youth leaders in their communities,” he said.
The participants are recommended through church youth groups or school guidance counselors. Most of the kids, who range in age from 13 to 17, have never even left Pittsburgh, let alone their own neighborhoods. Some have not ridden a bike further than a friend’s house down the street.
“These kids are very, very limited in their experiences, and as a result, are limited in their ambition and their sense of possibility,” Rubenstein said. “We try to encourage a broader view of the world and we encourage furtherance of education. It’s been pretty successful in that regard.”
Rubenstein spends several summer weekends training the kids for
long-distance riding. This past weekend, he led a group to Canton, Ohio. Their caravan of eight teenage bikers and several college-aged chaperones average 75 to 80 miles per day, and the trips take about three weeks. The troop camps at either a campground, or, if they’re feeling less adventurous, at a local Super 8 Motel.
Rubenstein has already seen the positive effects of his program, including a high school dropout who returned to school on the condition that he may participate in a future cycling tour, and a youth who decided to go to college after Rubenstein visited the University of Michigan during a biking expedition.
“We’re only as good as the slowest kid, which brings the teamwork and cooperative behavior into play,” Rubenstein said. “Everyone works together as best as they can. They become close, and that’s really cool.”
So that more kids can participate, this summer Rubenstein is leading two shorter cycling trips, each to last approximately one and a half to two weeks. This year’s destinations are the Great Smoky Mountains and New England.
Rubenstein’s experience as a criminal defense attorney has shown him the cyclical nature of poverty. He said that even though a poor person can grow up to become president of the United States, many of these kids do not see that as a possibility for themselves.
“Part of my thinking was to get them out of their element and show them these things in a positive goal-driven mode so that there is some carry-over in life. It’s great fun, it’s a tremendous adventure, but it’s really supposed to be an educational thing to lead them to a better life.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)