Montclair’s Gabrielle Rossi helps young girls get it in gear
Gabrielle Rossi seems to be constantly in motion.
She’s the executive director of Girls in Gear, a nonprofit that teaches young girls skills through learning how to bike ride.
She is the founder of the Dream Project, a cycling and service organization for college students who commit to cross-country fundraising bike rides each year.
She serves on the board of Girls on the Run, a nonprofit that helps develop girls' emotional and social skills through running.
She is a member of Bike&Walk Montclair.
In addition to participating in these organizations, the Montclair resident is currently working on her Ph.D. in public administration at Rutgers University.
Recently, Rossi acquired a new title to add to her list: NJ-11 Hero. Her husband, Jacob Nieman, nominated her to be one of Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s NJ-11 Heroes, an award given to those who have done impactful work in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District.
“Through her tireless work she's built a community of girls and volunteers of all gender identities dedicated to helping girls understand the power that lives inside them, and creating a noncompetitive space for girls to build and support their confidence at a time when girls are continuously questioned for who they are, why they are, and what they stand for,” Nieman wrote in his nomination.
Rossi started Girls in Gear in the spring of 2021; its motto is “teaching life skills through bike skills.” In its second year Girls in Gear has reached more than 600 girls ages 5 to 18 at nearly 20 sites in the Northeast.
Girls in Gear enables participants to learn social and emotional lessons through biking with a community.
“We use biking as an entryway into these conversations about our sense of self, assertive communication, active listening, resiliency, grit, thoughtful leadership, whatever it may be,” Rossi said.
She believes that between the ages of 8 and 14, young girls' confidence plummets as they become more self-aware. They experience self-doubt that affects them at home, in school and in their social circles, she said.
Through Girls in Gear, skills like learning how to ride a bike, change a tire or lead a group on their bikes allow girls to build confidence in a noncompetitive setting, unlike traditional sports teams.
Rossi makes it a point that she and her coaches don’t speak about topics such as calorie-burning or eating habits. They try to prioritize the emotional and physiological benefits of bike riding.
Girls in Gear prides itself on inclusivity in all aspects of its organization. Any adolescent who identifies as a girl is invited to join. There is no prior competitive experience required, and there is a “no questions asked” policy for its scholarship program.
Though Girls in Gear is her main project right now, Rossi founded the Dream Project while she was in her undergraduate program at Rutgers. The project started when she biked across the country to raise money for pediatric cancer.
For the Dream Project, she organized cross-country bike rides for college students while partnering with nonprofits in New Jersey. In the program participating students would learn about the organization, fundraise, volunteer and eventually take part in the cross-country bike ride.
The Dream Project catapulted Rossi into combining cycling and charity work. “This really opened my eyes to the idea of what I could do,” she said.
For people who want to start giving back but feel overwhelmed on where to start, Rossi offers words of encouragement.
“I think my advice is to think about what brings you joy, what lights you up, and how you might want to share the skills and passions and resources you have with your community,” she said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect photo.