In 2014, Southfield resident Yvonne Rucker tried to kill herself. Mental health issues forced the community college educator into retirement. Her personal life was a mess.
"I was totally adrift," she said.
After taking a long look in the mirror and having what she calls a "religious" moment, Rucker decided to take a risk and do something to make her happy.
That something was creating her nonprofit organization, Bikevon.
She came up with the idea after talking to an organizer at a charity bike ride who told her that no students of color received collegiate scholarships for cycling. They also said that if the students could get to the velodrome in Rochester Hills—an elevated, downward-sloped bike track that is one of 29 in the country—the equipment and track would be free for them to use.
It became Rucker's mission to get youth of color to the track.
"I had no idea if it was going to work out, but I was at a point in my life being retired that I couldn't find anything to interest me from day-to-day, and i became passionate about this," said Rucker, who lived on Detroit's east side for decades before moving to Southfield. "At that point it became happiness versus being miserable. I had nothing to lose."
Rucker formed a troupe of about 15 students ranging in age from 9-18 from different neighborhoods and schools in Detroit. Together, they travel to the velodrome four times a week -- three for practicing and one for competing.
It has been difficult getting funding for her organization, she says, noting that when compared to the popularity of football and basketball in the Midwest, there are fewer grants for cycling groups.
"Nine times out of ten when you say velodrome, people don't even know what that is," Rucker said.
Rucker said she has received some generous donations for equipment from those who understand the sport. Last year, she received a grant from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. that allowed her to purchase bikes, averaging $900 each, for her students.
That being said, she says she still has to dish out about $60 a week for gas to pile the kids into a van for the commute to the velodrome.
"I was looking for a sponsor and I said to myself 'this will mean nothing if you're not willing to go out on a limb for it' and I started emptying my pockets," Rucker said. "There have been days where my dinner consists of potato chips. And I'm happy to do it."
Wants Kids to See Beyond Detroit
Rucker says she has met some resistance from Detroiters who are unhappy that she travels to Rochester Hills with her students rather than focusing her efforts in Detroit. But she says she wants the kids to experience a world outside of Detroit. She also says that many of her student's neighborhoods are filled with abandoned homes or busy roads that make it unsafe to cycle locally, so they have to travel.
One of her students is Christian Kinsey, a 17-year-old from West Side Academy High School, who has been with Bikevon since its beginning.
"Honestly, the first day I went there I walked through this little tunnel and I looked up at the track and I said 'I'm supposed to ride on this?'" Kinsey said.
Since starting Bikevon, Kinsey said he has become healthier and learned to be perseverant, and considers his Bikevon friends to be "family."
"My biggest takeaway is relevant when you're riding on the track as well as Bikevon in general, it's basically don't give up," said Kinsey. "We've been working hard for 3 years talking about fundraisers and transportation and everything, plus if you're riding on the track if you're not going fast enough and you don't keep pedaling, you're going to fall and slide down the track, so you can't give up."
Despite major brands moving into Detroit and the emergence of a thriving restaurant scene, Rucker says she is disappointed that big-money investors haven't been focusing on improving schools and funding activities that benefit the average Detroit child.
"Little kids are watching their parents get shot and you're clapping because Nike opened a store downtown?" she said.