Zen on a Dirt Bike

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Members of dirt bike school are ready to go.

Your head is firmly encased in your helmet, and your long sleeve jersey clings to your arms. Below you the bike roars with full intensity and you are instantly transported into a state of meditative calm. This is how one person described dirt biking, and it can have a profound therapeutic effect on students who struggle with multi-tasking, eye contact, listening skills, and coordination among many other skills.

Perkins dirt bike program began when Perkins maintenance team member Paul Joyce collaborated with the Robert F. Kennedy School and the National Youth Project Using Mini Bikes. After a brief hiatus, Paul joined forces with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and Amanda Saunders came on to help run the program. Today, the season runs from mid-April until the first frost, and is one of the more popular offerings on campus. According to Paul, 15 students completed the course last season, joining the other 30 to 45 who had completed the course in previous years. This completion allows them to participate in the open rides which are offered several times during the week in the season.

Paul, who has been watching, teaching and coaching dirt biking for several years, added that he has seen numerous students flourish in the program. “This is not a matter of just having a great day and racing around with your buddies – although that is part of it,” Paul said. “It is really about learning to deal with people in close proximity to you, learning frustration tolerance, learning patience, and putting up with the weather. Remember, we ride in hot and humid weather and these kids still need to be in full gear.” He added, “I have been riding bikes of some kind my whole life. I know how powerful they are, and I know how much success kids can encounter from the driver’s seat of a bike.”

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Paul Joyce does final bike checks.

Amanda added, “I had ridden bikes and ATV’s when I was a young girl. I had taken several years off through high school, and when I heard that Perkins was starting a program on campus I knew I wanted in.”

After being offered a place as an instructor, Amanda – along with Paul -attended an intense three -day training course in Vermont to become certified dirt bike instructors. According to Amanda, this course was a grueling experience, and offered her great insight to what the students she would be teaching would feel. “I really have great empathy for what they are going through when they are on the bike,” Amanda said. “It’s a lot to pay attention to at once, and it takes focus and perseverance. The therapeutic benefits of dirt biking is incredible,” she added. “Riding a bike instills self-confidence.”

The Perkins dirt bike program is open to day and residential students and stresses skill not speed. “We are not racing around the track at 50 miles per hour,” Paul said. “We run laps and stress safety. We don’t go more than 15 to 20 miles per hour, and we are focusing on things like standing, taking turns successfully and watching out for others. Each lesson builds on the previous one.”

Once a student has completed the course – which takes eight hours – they are awarded a class completion card from California and a T-shirt that reads “off road life program.” These students now know the feeling of success and will continue to ride bikes in their spare time as part of their Perkins programs. Paul said, Once you have mastered a dirt bike, you can transfer the skills to a street bike and use it for life.”