Despite setback, program’s mission continues

ROCHESTER — Theresa Bowick went for a run four years ago to continue her goals of living healthier and losing weight and ended up with a mission to help her neighbors get fit as well.

And the thieves who stole the fleet of 150 bikes from her Conkey Cruisers bicycling and fitness program will not impede that mission, Bowick said.

Thanks to an "outpouring of support" following the June 26 discovery of the missing bikes from a Clifford Avenue storage facility, she has been able to triple the number of bikes she had in the unit that was broken into with a blow torch, Bowick explained. The Rochester Police Department has a "person of interest" regarding the theft and officers have recovered 25 bikes from a Conkey Avenue home and another from a pawn shop.

Police will also now provide greater surveillance of the storage unit and she has been able to add layers of security for the bikes, she added.

Since the theft, Bowick has collected more than 460 bikes during community bike drives and received a $10,000 grant from the Farash Foundation. The robbery received national attention through a July 7 interview with "Good Morning America" online, Bowick added, and she has received checks from all over the country and as far away as Africa. The support has been so great, Bowick will already "pay it forward" by giving some of the bikes to the Rochester Museum and Science Center for a summer camp that had not been able to secure bikes for its programming, she said.

Monroe County executive Maggie Brooks also presented Bowick with six new bicycles and 150 Seneca Park Zoo tickets at a July 9 community celebration at Downtown United Presbyterian Church, which included a second community bike drive and more donations. Bowick is a registered nurse and her nursing community also held a candlelight ceremony in solidarity with the organization during the event, which brought her to tears as the community has "put your love around us."

"My heart is filled with joy," Bowick said during a July 8 phone interview. "One thing I really want to recognize is that this (incident) is not about bikes being stolen from Conkey Cruisers. This is a sign of greater evil in our community. And if we don’t start to address those things, we will see more evil. We need to deal with poverty, the high-school dropout rate, the things that lead someone to torch a free bike program for economic gain. We need to address that."

It was another fateful day in May 2011 that first planted the seed for Conkey Cruisers, Bowick said. She had been "very overweight," she explained, and had started jogging, eventually losing 75 pounds.

During one of her jogs, she recalled, "A kid yelled out to me and asked if I was on probation."

Soon after, another man questioned if she was a police officer because "no one exercises in this neighborhood," she added.

"So, I said, ‘Lord, what’s the assignment?’" Bowick said with a smile and raising her hands toward the sky during a June 12 interview at Conkey-Clifford Park.

At the park is an entrance to the El Camino Trail, which the city of Rochester opened in 2012. It provided Bowick with the perfect venue for the Conkey Cruisers program, which organized its inaugural ride that summer. The program aims to provide opportunities for children and families in Bowick’s northeast Rochester neighborhood to practice routine exercise and learn about healthy eating.

For her "creative efforts to promote physical activity and trail use," Bowick and Conkey Cruisers received state recognition last month when New York state Sen. Joe Robach presented Bowick with the Get Outdoors Award from the Office of Parks and Trails New York, according to information at http://bit.ly/1Ner1GG. The June 9 ceremony took place in Albany.

Mayor Lovely Warren also gave her blessing for Conkey Cruisers to utilize the 2.2-mile path and connected Bowick with Miguel Meléndez from Project HOPE, Bowick said. Project HOPE, an Ibero-American Development Corp. initiative funded by the Greater Rochester Health Foundation, also has been working for several years to improve the social, physical and economic conditions in northeast Rochester.

Meléndez said that he was happy to coordinate meetings with neighbors and families for Bowick to begin registering them for the program, which fits in with the work of Project HOPE.

Theresa Bowick (center), founder of Conkey Cruisers, is joined by her daughter, Jacynta Harris (left), and Liz Sheen during a July 9 vigil at Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester. More than 450 bikes have been donated to Conkey Cruisers since the program suffered a theft in late June.

Bowick also connected with Excellus, which donated $3,000 to purchase bikes. Bowick said that Conkey Cruisers also receives support from other local organizations such as R Community Bikes and Advantage Credit Union that helps with maintenance, safety and funding.

That funding also will prove vital as she moves into a new phase for students who participate in Conkey Cruisers, Bowick said.

Beginning this summer, they will earn money based on the number of miles they ride, she said, noting that they won’t be able to access the money until they graduate from high school.

She’s calling that component "Cruising Counts."

"You look at it and think it’s one small thing," Bowick said. "But if I can get somebody across that stage (to graduate) … I want to be that person."

Last year, 137 residents registered for the Conkey Cruisers program, and she’s hoping to have 150 riders this summer, ranging in age from 2 to 88, she said. And a handful of the teen participants also have the opportunity to be ride leaders, Bowick noted.

If participants don’t have bikes, they may ride loaner bikes that have been provided through donations and sponsors, Bowick explained. Some of those bikes are ergonomic recumbent bicycles. The younger participants also have the opportunity to earn a bike, she added.

For many families, the program has become an annual tradition, Bowick said, and three generations of one family who live nearby have returned year after year.

Yadira Maldonado said that she began riding with Conkey Cruisers when she was pregnant and heard Bowick’s pitch about getting healthy. She also wants to be a good role model for her sons, who are 10 and 12.

"It was good exercise for myself, and the kids liked it," she said of the program. "And it’s something (positive) for them to do to keep them active and off the streets."

Maldonado said that she also appreciates that the children are hearing valuable messages about eating healthy and being fit.

"Kids like to eat junk food," she said. "So it’s good for them to learn what are healthy things to eat and what not to eat."

For the family’s matriarch, Estervina Vega, the exercise is beneficial, she said. She also noted that she and her family first heard of Conkey Cruisers at a community meeting.

"(Biking) helps give you more energy to do more things," Vega said.

Fellow community advocates and volunteers agree that Conkey Cruisers is having an important impact on the lives of the neighborhood residents.

Michael Davis, a retired New York state trooper, said that he has noticed less activity on the corners of nearby Clifford and Conkey avenues. He serves as Conkey Cruisers’ safety coordinator and provides information to riders about proper helmet usage and assists with bike maintenance.

"The neighborhood has really embraced the program," he added. "People understand we’re trying to do something positive for the children and they’re very supportive of that. Many of the same kids come back. …The kids really look forward to the program. And I’ve seen kids riding their bikes throughout the neighborhood."

Residents have not only become more active, but Conkey Cruisers participants also are consistent users of the El Camino Trail, which is such an asset for the city neighborhood, noted Meléndez of Project HOPE.

"When you see families out on the trail together and at the park together, it creates a positive image and positive affirmation for that corner, Clifford and Conkey," he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To donate or learn more about Conkey Cruisers, visit http://conkeycruisers.org.

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