Craig Dodson was a semi-professional cyclist when he was asked to speak to a group of students at a recreation center in Richmond, Virginia.
He didn’t know that many of them lived in one of the city’s roughest housing projects and attended its lowest-performing schools.
“I walk in with my khakis and polo shirt,” Dodson said. “I start telling these kids, ‘Don’t do drugs and you can be just like me.’ They just looked at me like, ‘You idiot. There’s no bridge big enough to get me to where you are.’ “
Dodson couldn’t shake the experience. That was in 2005.
Today, the 37-year-old has become a father figure to about 20 young people living in Richmond’s public housing.
His nonprofit, the Richmond Cycling Corps, creates and coaches cycling teams for the most at-risk children living in the projects.
Participants do extensive bicycle training, meeting up multiple times a week for practice as well as competitions. While they work hard, the organization is about much more than cycling.
“We’re luring them in with a bike — but (it’s) not about giving kids positive life experiences through bikes,” said Dodson, who started the program in 2010. “Our job is to get them out of public housing.”
Dodson and two other Richmond Cycling Corps employees do everything they can to make sure their students have no excuses to fail.
“There is a lot of trauma with these kids,” Dodson said. “We are like the Navy Seals. We have to infiltrate and be there for every part of their life.”
CNN’s Meghan Dunn spoke with Dodson about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What’s it like in the public housing projects where your kids live?
Dodson: It’s a world removed. It’s the thickest concentration of poverty that you could manufacture and condense. It’s not just bad because of the obvious, like drugs, violence, guns. It’s so bad because it’s damn near impossible to get out of public housing. You’re constantly surrounded by people who couldn’t make it out. And so our kids are literally weighed down all the time. And they have to get on this bike and do all these amazing things.
I told my kids this: When I was growing up, I had the room with posters of all these bike racers. I was surrounded by role models that I looked up to, who I wanted to be like. Here I am at 37 years old, and I get more inspiration from these kids because I know what they go through. And then to see what they’re accomplishing, they make those guys in my room completely insignificant.
CNN: You are working to profoundly change these kids’ lives. Is there anything you won’t do for them?
Dodson: We do whatever it takes. I take the kids to medical appointments, dental visits. Getting them out of jail. Handling drug issues. (One girl) went missing once for 36 hours. I was the one out there looking for her. When I found her — you know, you’re so mad until you see them, right? Like, that’s how it works.
I deal with school issues, fighting, suspensions and expulsions. Everything. It’s anything. There’s never been something we haven’t been able to handle in some capacity. It’s very small, boots-on-the-ground, in the trenches, get-it-done type of work. We’re scrappy. I think that’s why it works.
CNN: This seems to be more than a job for you.
Dodson: This is part of my life 24/7. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up; it’s the last thing I think about when I go to bed. First thing I do every morning is check the news, looking for shootings in the neighborhood. If I see something, I start making calls or I just drive out there. I just did what was common sense, what seemed right. I feel like that’s what my parents would’ve done.
You’ve got to meet the kids where they are. It shows them, “Look man, like, you’re not going to hide. I’m not afraid of you.” If you’re not going to show up, I’m going to bang on your door. I’ve climbed up walls and opened second story windows to find a kid. You come in, and you’re like a tracker trying to get these kids. You’re just trying to hold them accountable. It shows a level of care that they’re not used to.
CNN: What does the future of Richmond Cycling Corps look like?
Dodson: We’re moving all of our youth operations into a building that’s only six-and-a-half blocks from where the majority of our kids live. Our building is right at the threshold of public housing. And I will be living there. I’ll be at the hub of everything now. We will be more accessible to the kids, and they will be more accessible to us. The on-call style work we do will be a lot easier.
Last week, I received calls several nights at 1:30 a.m., where I needed to get to the neighborhood to look for kids. With me living in the area, by the time I get off the phone, I could be in the neighborhood. Things happen so fast with these kids, to be that close is huge. We have to be like a fire department — we’ve got to be there and ready to go at all times.
Want to get involved? Check out the Richmond Cycling Corps website and see how to help.