Pedaling to empowerment

ChooseWell Champion Laura Shutiak launched Youth En Route in 2021, aiming to make active transport the easy choice for Calgary’s youth. Now, the charity has brought active travel projects to eleven different local schools, including providing bikes for students of all abilities. Youth En Route relied on partnership to bring their vision to reality, and they emphasize the importance of working in networks of like-minded individuals, such as Communities ChooseWell. “Building a community of people working in the same field towards the same end is really important,” says Laura, Youth En Route’s founder and executive director.

By Anna Schmidt, 2023

In a high school gym, a teenager swings her leg over a bike frame. The pedals orbit in a few slow revolutions, before the girl tilts and tumbles off. She quickly jumps up, hops back on and gets her legs pumping. “I’m going. I’m doing it!” she shouts.

The teen hasn’t cycled since childhood, but is back in the saddle thanks to a bike provided by Youth En Route, a Calgary-based charity.

“Youth En Route is about empowering young people to choose active travel,” says Laura Shutiak, the charity’s founder and executive director. “Our vision is a world where youth choose to ride because it’s the safest, easiest and quickest way to get around.”

Laura launched Youth En Route in 2021, after the pandemic highlighted just how essential it is for teens to have access to independent transport. During lockdowns, city buses ran less frequently and the spreading virus made carpooling unsafe. Biking to school seemed like a great solution, but there were some major barriers, explains Laura.

Some students lacked equipment or cycling skills, others had no safe place to lock their bikes and many did not know bike-friendly routes to their destination. At Dr. EP Scarlett High School in southwest Calgary, Laura found less than 10 per cent of students were walking or biking to school.

The need was apparent, and Youth En Route was born. A short two years later, the charity has launched active travel projects at 11 different Calgary high schools, providing bikes for PE classes, improving security of pre-existing bike racks and leading wayfinding exercises to identify safe routes to school.

“Really, we’re trying to give kids choices,” says Laura. “It’s not about saying ‘This is what you should do.’ We’re trying to show this is an option and allow youth to make that choice.”

As a newer organization, Youth En Route has focused on building strong partnerships to help transform their ideas into action, says Laura. The charity has worked with Ever Active Schools and the City of Calgary, among others. They also teamed up with seniors at the Greater Forest Lawn 55+ society, who refurbish donated bikes before they are delivered to Calgary schools. 

Partnership is essential to the work of Youth En Route, explains Laura, and it’s part of the reason she signed up as a Communities ChooseWell Champion. “Building a community of people working in the same field towards the same end is really important,” she says.

When Youth En Route decided to branch into providing adaptive bikes for special education classes, they added to their partner network, drawing on expertise from Cerebral Palsy Kids and Families and receiving a grant from KidSport and the Government of Alberta. Now, Youth En Route has brought adaptive bikes to seven different Calgary high schools, including adult trikes and recumbent hand-cycles. 

“We want to create cultures at schools where bike riding is a viable means of transportation. It’s not just a fun weekend activity — it’s how you get around. And by having everyone at the school demonstrate the ability, that helps us create that culture,” says Laura. “A bike can give you some independence. Some of the kids [in special education classes] may never have the capacity to drive a car, but they sure as heck can ride a bike.”

For teens of all abilities, biking not only supports independence, but improves holistic health, she adds. “Studies show that kids who get to school on their own power have higher marks — it’s that daily physical activity that is so important to mental health and brain performance.”

As the program grows, Laura receives more and more e-mails from teachers looking to bring Youth En Route into their schools. As she plans to expand the program, Laura returns to the importance of partnership. “If it was just Youth En Route trying to do this work, we wouldn’t have achieved even a tiny fraction of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”