Ash Peters is passing on her love of mountain biking to hundreds of families around the Wellington region. She spoke to Thalia Kehoe Rowden about what draws her to the hills, and how her charity is reaching all sorts of families who haven’t been on the trails before.
The WORD youth mountain biking holiday programmes often sell out in minutes. “Just like a rock concert!” says founder Ash Peters. We’re talking about 250 kids per term and 150 kids in the school holiday camps. And they currently offer after-school programmes in Mt Victoria, Makara Peak MTB Park, Wainuiomata MTB Park, and Rangituhi in Porirua.
“I wanted kids to feel what I feel when I ride,” says Peters.
Arizona-born and now a devoted Wellingtonian, Peters adores mountain biking. Now she’s passing on the biking bug to hundreds of Wellington families. Thanks to months of noodle-fuelled late nights, a seed grant from KiwiSport, and now sponsorship from Flick and other local partners, WORD runs after-school and holiday programmes for kids from seven years old, right up to high-schoolers.
Cilla Bennett has three kids who ride, and the family has become immersed in mountain bike culture. The Bennett kids have been keen WORD students for five years. They started with a holiday programme and have done every term since, including a camp in Rotorua last year which 12-year-old Will says was “awesome”.
They’ve become so thoroughly converted to mountain biking that when I ask the kids what their favourite skills are, I can’t understand most of their answers, so deeply immersed they are in mountain biking jargon. If you too are mystified by ten-year-old Jack’s love for “getting big air and whips” then perhaps you need to join WORD for yourself. All will be revealed.
And now younger Bennett Lucy, 7, has experienced her first programme. So what did she learn? “I learnt not to be scared when you are scared to do stuff and to just go for it! I have learnt about the ‘ready position’ and if you stand up when you go downhill you get more balance.”
Mountain biking is a pretty expensive pastime, with lots of gear costs to get started. But WORD has avoided becoming an elite club of privileged kids through the support of generous donors and partners.
“We are so lucky to be working with Flick Electric to establish our WORD Scholarship Fund. Over the past year, we’ve been able to offer 30 free spots in our after-school programmes to kids who would otherwise not have been able to join us. We have seen that the barrier to participation has not been access to a bike, but instead it is the actual programme fee,” says Peters.
Anyone can help fund these scholarships, she says. And if you’re keen to help get a kid riding, you can donate directly to WORD through their Givealittle page.
The after-school classes are sorted by age and ability, and go for two hours at a time on the trails, as kids learn new skills like corners and jumps – and no doubt those “whips” and “big air” – while gaining confidence on two wheels.
“WORD is all about encouraging kids to enjoy the trails, just as much as we do. We strive to build confidence – on and off the bike – encourage new friendships, and foster a life-long love of mountain biking,” says Peters.
It’s about being part of a special biking community, says Cilla Bennett. And she’s noticed the effect this holistic approach has had on her own family’s participation.
“You can tell, the way the kids wear their WORD t-shirts and stickers with absolute pride,” she says.
The enthusiasm Peters has for biking has drawn in a whole village of people. There’s an ongoing joke that if you’re a friend of Peters for long enough, you will eventually become a WORD instructor. She manages a team of 25 paid instructors, who come for one or two afternoons a week to pass on their skills. Instructors have an annual training weekend where they ride bikes, learn new techniques for instructing, share ideas on games and group management, and run through first aid and risk management scenarios.
“Most instructors are also professionals in daily life – we are proud to have folks in IT, physiotherapy, marketing, construction, teaching, engineering, policy, and marine management.’
There’s even a craft beer brewer. It is Wellington, after all.
Teenagers who have caught the “mountain bike bug” also have the opportunity to train to be instructors of the younger ones. They volunteer an afternoon a week to buddy up with a WORD instructor to learn the ins and outs of being responsible for a group of high-spirited 7 to 9-year-olds. Peters has found the assistant instructors have a great insight and empathy for the participants; after all, it wasn’t long ago that they were in their shoes. At the end of the term all the assistants head away for a mountain bike trip, as a way to say thank you for all their time over the season.
“Having an instructor pathway like this is a way in which WORD can be more than just learning about mountain biking; it’s also developing life skills,” says Peters.
The joy of mountain biking is spreading through the region. When WORD started, most of the kids who joined were from families that biked already. Now they’re seeing a shift and kids from all over Wellington are keen to ride – and they are dragging their parents out on the trails.
“It’s all word of mouth. Kids wear their WORD t-shirts with pride to school, so it doesn’t take long for current WORD families to chat to others about the programme.”
This has really been an unexpected bonus: more kids riding has lead to more parents getting involved too.
“This is particularly great because we know from research that when parents share a love of an activity then kids are more likely to continue participating.”
In fact, parents now have to be coaxed away from crashing their kids’ classes. And the WORD website’s instructions for parents include this cute (but firm) section:
“We love that you love riding bikes too! And although we know some of you are keen to ride with your kids during a WORD session, we would prefer that you do your own thing instead. Think of it like soccer – you wouldn’t run on the field playing with your kid at practice. So go on and enjoy the 2 hours… there are heaps other parents that are also keen on an adult ride!”
Peters has become a dedicated superfan of the coolest little capital in the world, the place she now regards as home. And, she says, it’s still an undiscovered haven for mountain biking.
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“Wellington is home to world-class mountain bike trails only 10 minutes from the CBD! These trails provide the perfect playground for us to explore, play and learn.”
She sees WORD as being about much more than biking. She wants to contribute to making her new home thrive. It’s become a community for young people.
“What makes WORD so special is that the kids are really part of something. They have a sense of belonging. It doesn’t matter what school you go to, what job your parents have or what bike you ride. When you’re at WORD, we’re all just mountain bikers. Kids are developing into confident, kind and considerate citizens of Wellington.”
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