Bear Camp Provides Refugee Kids with Bikes, Life Skills, Plenty of Fun

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Three young teenagers peddle down the side of Camelsback Hill, boldly careening across the lower end of the park. They dismount and greet their companions with looks of accomplishment and satisfaction back at the Bear Camp, the greetings are returned with warm cheers of approval and further camaraderie.

Bear Camp is a one-of-a-kind event, where refugee children—many coming from war ravaged countries—are taught bike lessons and led through trails or area streets. At the end of the week long camp, the children are given a free bike with basic riding gear. More importantly, the kids are able to develop common bonds with other refugees through the shared experience of sport.

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This year's camp had 29 participants, from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo and Iraq, and roughly 40 working volunteers. Volunteers do everything from event organization to teaching the kids how to ride. James Lofthus volunteers as a trail guide. On Aug. 11, he and his group road 9.5 miles worth of dusty trail through Boise's foothills.

"You get to see these kids who, in their backgrounds, may not have had the opportunity to even have fun. So it's nice to get them out here where they can have a great time, while teaching them a skill they can use for the rest of their lives," said Lofthus.

A new addition to this years event was an educational curriculum in which the kids were taught environmental responsibility, trail and street safety, how to change a tire, and other basic bike maintenance.

"It's exciting to watch, some of the kids are doing really rough trails," said Ellen Albus, refugee youth coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, an organization involved in the planning of Bear Camp.

"It's incredible, kids who have barely been on a bike are doing advanced rides by day two or three, they're fearless," said Mark Dale, marketing director for the event.

One of the participants, Henry from Thailand said, "It's been fun, we've been riding all around and doing jumps." Henry said he'd learned a lot, and that he looked forward to coming back next year.

The other kids echoed his positive sentiments—the camp was filled with bright faces and ear-to-ear grins. Soe Reh, also from Thailand said, "It's been very fun, I look forward to having my own bike now."

The camp is funded by community donations from businesses and individuals. George's Cycles, Bikes 2 Boards, and others all donated bikes, gear, and time to the event, while local riders Team Exergy donated all of the helmets. In total, it costs about $175 per child and the event relies heavily on community support for operation, they're already accepting help for next years camp.

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