Great Salt Bay Community School’s annual bike rodeo took place on Thursday, May 25, with bike giveaways, obstacle courses and safety education.
With the help of local businesses, the school’s bus drivers, who organize the event and secure funds, highlighted the importance of bike safety and proper riding techniques.
John Mitkus and Debby Newell, longtime bus drivers at GSB, have been putting together the event for close to 25 years for the school’s K-3 students.
“We used to see kids biking to school with no helmets,” Mitkus said, “so we decided to do something about it.”
In the state of Maine, children 16 years and under must wear a helmet on public roads or face a $25 fine.
After an initial partnership with the state of Maine fell through, Mitkus and Newell took over the event from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and put together the program on their own, raising money with fundraisers like dinners, silent auctions, a dollhouse raffle, and even a lobster bake.
Nowadays, Karl’s Kids’, a Midcoast organization that promotes youth involvement in athletics, has been sponsoring the event by purchasing the helmets they give to the kids.
“That’s big,” David DeFosses, the rodeo’s “field operator,” as Mitkus called him, said. “(The bus drivers) used to have to bake stuff.”
The helmets are bought through Bath Cycle and Ski.
He has been with the bike rodeo almost since its inception, riding his bike through the course with the students.
A former competitive cyclist and general bike enthusiast, DeFosses showed the children some of the technical aspects of bike safety, such as correctly engaging their brakes and the rules of the road.
“This is their first vehicle; we try to show them vehicle skills. All of the same stuff comes into play — what side of road you ride your bike on and who has the right-of-way,” DeFosses said.
Beyond providing helmets, the bike rodeo gives away eight bikes every year in a raffle. Four are donated by Mark Doe, of Louis Doe Home Center, and four are donated by GSB’s Parent Teacher Organization.
“You have to at least try to ride a bike for your name to get entered into the drawing,” said Newell.
“It’s like winning the lottery,” second grade teacher Suzanne Robb said.
Her students were “super, super excited” for the rodeo, asking her how many more days they had to wait.
“It’s fun to just watch them out of the course,” she said. “They’re excited.”
As the bike rodeo has grown, so have the opportunities for the students. The past two bike rodeos have included Strider bikes, balance-assisted bikes that help children gain confidence on two wheels. Allan Ray, a former bus driver, assembled the bikes.
According to Newell, holding the bike rodeo for students in kindergarten through third grade gives them important practice in their formative years.
“They really get a lot of information, but they’re playing so they don’t realize it,” DeFosses said, looking out on the bike courses set up in the front parking lot of GSB.
The county’s emergency services have used the bike rodeo as an opportunity to bring emergency vehicles to the school. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Damariscotta Police Department, Central Lincoln County Ambulance Service, and the Bremen Fire Department were present at Thursday’s event.
This gives the students the chance to become familiar with the services, and people, who are there to help them, according to Tom Papell, of the Bremen Fire Department.
“It’s good (for the students) to see these emergency vehicles in a fun setting,” he said over students laying on the fire truck’s horn.
Mitkus agreed that engaging with the students hands-on is an important part of the bike rodeo experience.
“The kids have fun,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
(Editor’s note: The Damariscotta Police Department was inadvertently excluded from the original article. The Lincoln County News regrets the omission.)