BMX program puts kids on positive path
Tony Hoffman has a plant in each hand. More than 120 kids sit opposite him on the BMX track at Woodward Park.
One of the plants is dead. The other is green and flowering.
Hoffman holds up a red gas can.
“Do you pour gasoline on a plant?” he asks.
“No,” the kids answer in unison.
“No, you don’t because it will poison the plant,” Hoffman says. “It’s like you smoking cigarettes, doing drugs or drinking alcohol.”
He holds up a bag of potting soil: “Is this good for the plant?”
“Yeah!” they answer.
“What’s good for us?”
“School,” one of the riders says.
“Because you learn.”
“You can get a job”
“What else is good for us?”
Hoffman, a BMX pro from Clovis, nears the end of a 10-minute talk.
“Our attitude determines what happens in life,” he says. “It’s important that we put the right things in ourselves. Are you ready to ride bikes?”
The kids, some of whom have come from as far away as Merced, follow Hoffman’s directions, get fitted for helmets and pick out bikes from a supply of loaners for three hours of riding Monday morning.
Kyle Wells, 18, a recent Clovis High graduate and BMX rider, helps out Hoffman. In a week or two, Randy Stumpfhauser of Sanger, winner of 14 professional national and world titles, will lend a hand, too.
Hoffman, 28, knows about figuratively dousing yourself in gasoline. After he gave up riding in 2002 for a high-tech job in San Diego, his partying lifestyle led him down the path of addiction. He moved back home to Clovis in 2007 and hit rock bottom by participating in a home-invasion robbery.
While serving nearly two years in prison, Hoffman decided to return to BMX racing and to help steer kids right. He has lived up to his word thus far. He says he has been clean and sober since May 18, 2007, and he has worked hard to launch the Freewheel Project.
Hoffman conducted free BMX clinics at Woodward last summer that attracted about 60 weekly participants. Now, after gaining 501(c)3 nonprofit status for the Freewheel Project, he is expanding efforts to provide youths with activities and riding tips. Many of his sponsors, such as Bell helmets and Kenda tires, have kicked in with gear. Local supporters include Wells Fargo and Diamond Learning Center. Once again, there is no charge for the sessions.
Hoffman knows what a new bike means to a kid. This summer, he wants to give a bike to every participant attending all nine weekly sessions and following the rules.
“No bullying, no foul language, no throwing the helmets,” he says. “This isn’t just a come-get-a-bike program. There are rules. There has to be a commitment.
“Our message is simple, make the right choices, follow the right people and, most importantly, never give up on your dreams.”
As of Monday, he had raised enough money for 85 bikes — mostly through a recent concert at Cornerstone Church. But he expects about 100 youths to complete the program, so any help would be appreciated. With his connections as a pro rider, Hoffman buys them for about $100 each.
The lure of a free bike undoubtedly helps keeps kids in line, but Hoffman also has a knack for reaching youngsters. Some are first-time riders. Some are only 4 years old. But he commands their attention, and the riders wait patiently to start down the hill, negotiate the curves and go over the bumps.
When the trip is completed, each rider returns his bike and helmet and gets back in line. When Hoffman sees a boy throwing a dirt clod, he says loudly (but with a smile) to the throng, “If you want to throw rocks, you can. But you’ll have to sweep the whole track first.”
Robert Perez of Fresno brought five riders to the first two sessions: his stepson, two grandsons and two neighbors.
“It’s awesome,” Perez says. “Tony has a positive outlook and offers good learning tools to the kids. The chance to get a bike is a reason for them to come. But they have to earn it and, if they do, they’ll appreciate it more.”
Hoffman’s dream is to expand the Freewheel Project beyond Fresno. He envisions “missionary” trips to Mexico, instructing the locals and giving them equipment to run their own program.
But, for now, he is surrounded by kids of varying ages, experience and abilities. Those he doesn’t know are questioned and coached before before he sends them down the hill.
“Were you here last week?”
“Where are your long sleeves? I don’t care if you wear a jacket, but you’ve got to have long sleeves.”
“Don’t go too fast at the start. Use your brake. Don’t be a stunt devil. We’ve got stunt devils out here, and they end up on the ground. Don’t be a stunt devil.”
I ask Hoffman if keeping track of so many kids wears him out.
“No, I love it. Three hours goes by like this,” he says, snapping his fingers. “It doesn’t feel like work.”
What: Freewheel Project weekly BMX clinics for children 4-years-old and up
Where: Woodward Park BMX track
When: Mondays, 9 a.m.-12 p.m. through Aug. 13
Additional information: freewheelproject.org or FreewheelProjectFresno@gmail.com
By Bill McEwen