By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

In 2013, when Montclair resident Gabrielle Rossi was an undergraduate at Rutgers University, she and four other people decided to bike across the country to raise awareness for pediatric cancer patients.

Rossi, who is now working on her doctorate in public administration at Rutgers, said the experience was transformative. 

“Beyond the money that we raised and the hours that we volunteered, it really showed me how I can show up for my community,” Rossi said. “And it doesn’t need to be at a time where I have a large net worth or a huge network or tenure in my field.” 

Rossi said that experience set her on a track. She founded The Dream Project, a cycling and service organization for college students who commit to cross-county fundraising bike rides each year. She also serves on the board of Girls on the Run — an international nonprofit that boosts girls’ social, physical, emotional and behavior skills with through a running-based curriculum  — where she has coached for the past 10 years.

Rossi said when she joined Bike&Walk Montclair, an advocacy group for policies focused on improving conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists, one of the board members suggested creating a bicycling program in town for female riders. And in the spring of 2021, Girls in Gear was born.

It started with just eight riders in Montclair. By the fall, there were more than 100 girls, including 60 in Montclair, at several participating sites throughout the state. Rossi is aiming to grow the program to 200 to 300 hundred riders.

“I think that there’s just been an incredible reception for the program and for the work that we do,” Rossi said. “And I think it really speaks to our community here in Montclair, specifically, that we were able to start this program in the middle of a global pandemic and receive nothing but enthusiastic support.” 

Girls in Gear is a eight-week program for riders ages 6 to 16 who want to build confidence on and off their bikes. Rossi said weekly sessions focus on a mix of emotional development conversations, bike maintenance and riding skills. 

She said the conversations focus on assertive communication, active listening, stretching outside a rider’s comfort zone and asking for help. There are lessons on empathy, kindness, patience and resilience, which Rossi said are more applicable now than ever. 

“I think we’ve been robbed of so much joy, both big moments and small moments, in the past two years, and been deprived of expected and unexpected moments that brighten our day,” she said. 

“And so, if we can take out a group of riders for 90 minutes over the course of a few months … we can all just have fun and listen to music, and be silly, and dance, and decorate our bikes, and talk about our likes and dislikes while weaving in those bigger conversations.”

Rossi said these conversations are necessary, especially with young girls.

“We live in a world where from a very early age, girls are continuously questioned for who they are, why they are, and what they stand for in life,” she said.

Girls often experience deeper self-doubt than boys, which can stay with them through adulthood, she said.

“That self-doubt affects how they show up for themselves in school, at home and with friends,” she said. 

Girls in Gear is an eight-week program for riders ages 6 to 16 who want to build confidence on and off their bikes. Founder Gabrielle Rossi, at right, helping a participant with her bicycle, said the weekly sessions focus on a mix of emotional development conversations, bike maintenance and riding skills. (COURTESY GABRIELLE ROSSI)
Girls in Gear is an eight-week program for riders ages 6 to 16 who want to build confidence on and off their bikes. Founder Gabrielle Rossi, at right, helping a participant with her bicycle, said the weekly sessions focus on a mix of emotional development conversations, bike maintenance and riding skills. (COURTESY GABRIELLE ROSSI)
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Rossi said the program gives girls a space where they can “question those assumptions of who they should be and explore how they want to present themselves in the world.” But she doesn’t describe it as “empowering” young girls — because she doesn’t want to suggest she and the program are the ones giving them power.

“I’m not giving these girls the power to find their self-confidence to go out into the world as better versions of themselves. They had that in them all along,” she said. “Instead, at Girls in Gear, I help program participants activate their power, agency, and confidence — qualities they always have internally possessed and may only have needed the safe space Girls in Gear provides to explore. That way, my riders can take the skills they learn on their bikes and apply them to develop their solutions to the problems they face in their day-to-day lives both on and off their bikes.”

Registration for the Girls in Gear program will be open on March 1 at girlsingear.org. The registration cost is $25, but the program has a “no questions asked” scholarship for participants who can’t afford the fee. Bikes and helmets will be provided for anyone who needs them. Anyone who wants to donate a bike or a helmet can do so through the website.

The program has three curricula, for 6- to 8-year-old riders, 9- to 12-year-old riders and 13- to 16-year-old riders. Rossi said the program is also partnering with the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence’s Navegadores Escolares program — which helps newly arrived Spanish-speaking immigrant families navigate the township — by collecting used bicycles that can be donated to participating families. 

Rossi said it has been a joy to create a program that helps girls learn not only about bikes, but also about themselves and their community. 

“I’m honored to continue to grow alongside them and see where things go,” she said. “We got locations all over the state for the spring. So onward and upward, as far as we can go helping girls build confidence on and off their bikes.”

This post has been updated to correct references to the number of weeks the program runs, and the age ranges to which it is open, as well as to clarify some statements.