The program was so well liked in the first year that nearly all of the girls returned.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — There is nothing else Mary Parkman would want to do instead of going mountain biking with her friends.
It gives her confidence, camaraderie, and is a lot of fun. Now she is passing on what has been such a big part of her life to young girls. Parkman runs Little Bellas summer camp. The weeklong program connects young girls with mentors, and together they mountain bike.
"It has been a big part of my life and my friendships. And we're passing it on to the girls," Parkman said.
The program started last year as a local chapter of the national Little Bellas organization. The goal is not to just show the girls how to ride, though it does do that, but also builds confidence in themselves and friendships with other girls interested in the male-dominated sport.
The program promotes teamwork, goal-setting, and healthy living, all through mountain biking.
"The main goal is to have fun. But also build confidence," Parkman said.
She added that going into the camp, most of the girls don't know each other and throughout the week are able to form a bond with others. The girl's age from 8 to 11 and are spending a half day this week learning the basics like the names of the various bike parts to how to shift, to group rides through the Pittsfield State Forest. Parkman said the skill levels range too — not all are beginners.
Only in its second year, the local Little Bellas program has been creating a buzz. In its inaugural year, eight girls enrolled in the camp and nearly all of them returned for this year. Now the class is up 16, and Parkman said many of those girls are already talking about coming back next year.
"We have almost all of the girls from last year back and we added nine more," said Mary Parkman, who formed the chapter last year. "I think it speaks to how much fun the program is."
The original Little Bellas started in Jericho, Vt., in 2007. Lea and Sabra Davison had both gotten into biking and began entering national series. But when they looked down the starting lines, they noticed there were few women in the sport.
At Middlebury (Vt.) College, the two teamed up with Angela Irvine to start what is known as the Little Bellas program. For 12 Sundays through the summer of 2007, mentors ran sessions teaching the sport to young women. The first year wasn't well attended, but once word had gotten out, more than 40 girls signed up the following year.
Since then the program has been expanding and charters have been starting up in various places throughout the country. The girls spend the week together with mentors building their skills, biking the local trail networks and participating in games.
Little Bellas will next be offering two free sessions at Springside Park.
Parkman had heard about the program after seeing a feature video about it.
"I just thought it was the coolest thing to see the young girls on bikes," Parkman said.
She began talking to a friend who was working for the national program about starting a local chapter. The criteria for having a charter here was interested girls, mentors, and a good trail network. The Berkshires checked all of the boxes.
"We have all of that here in the Berkshires," Parkman said.
They began recruiting mentors and girls for it. And then they scouted for trails throughout the county — settling on the one at the Pittsfield State Forest to be the location. Parkman and her team, Marta Kirsis, Alison McGee, Sue Sacco, and Alexa Wilson teach the girls every morning during the week.
Local business, Berkshire Bike and Board and Plaine's Ski Bike Snowboard, both joined in to support the effort.
And there is more to come. Parkman said the program is looking to expand. On Aug. 27 and on Oct. 1, both Sundays, the group will be providing free "give it a whirl" sessions at Springside Park. They hope they'll find more girls interested, some who may be unsure about it right now.
The organization is also considering adding a second program which would be one day a week for eight weeks.
"We are looking to expand the program offerings so it is available for more girls," Parkman said.
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