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Pedaling empowers Pittsburgh Youth Leadership bicycle group for miles

| Sunday, May 11, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh Youth Leadership cyclists take a photo break at North Park Lake. Founder and president of the group Mark Rubenstein is in center in a beard and red T-shirt.
Pittsburgh Youth Leadership cyclists take a photo break at North Park Lake. Founder and president of the group Mark Rubenstein is in center in a beard and red T-shirt.
Pittsburgh Youth Leadership
Teen cyclists stop at Lake Erie on the way to Dunkirk, N.Y.
Teen cyclists stop at Lake Erie on the way to Dunkirk, N.Y.

Criminal defense attorney Mark Rubenstein gets a lot of mileage out of mentoring.

As founder and president of Pittsburgh Youth Leadership, Rubenstein of Swisshelm Park takes at-risk teen boys on cycling adventures all over the United States, exposing them to new challenges and opportunities.

Since its launch as a nonprofit in 2006, participants have logged 147,000 miles in 44 states — numbers that will jump this summer, after a trip to Oklahoma and Texas, plus another to the Pacific Coast.

For his efforts, Rubenstein will receive the Manny Gold Humanitarian Award from the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Western Pennsylvania at its 31st annual banquet May 18.

“Half of these kids have never been out of Pittsburgh. They've never been on a plane. Most come from low-income, one-parent families and may have a limited sense of the future,” Rubenstein, 61, says. “What our trips do is open their eyes to what is possible.”

Because they may pedal more than 70 miles a day, the boys begin training months in advance on local trails. And they are expected to brave rugged terrain and nasty weather. Only heavy snowfall and lightning will delay or force cancellation of a trip, Rubenstein says.

“The training is difficult, but it's a good proving ground,” he says. “If a kid is having serious second thoughts, we'd rather find out in Greenfield than Wyoming.”

One boy quit during his first training ride, Rubenstein says. “He said, ‘I'm not riding up that hill.' So we locked his bike to a pole and called his mother.”

But for the majority of kids who stick with it, the rewards can be life-changing, Rubenstein says. “This isn't about cycling as much as character development and confidence-building. They experience what it's like to set and accomplish goals. They bond and help each other. And they get to see parts of the country they might not otherwise.”

Mentchaas Anderson, 16, of Mt. Oliver says biking with the group for three years has helped him realize he can accomplish anything he puts his mind to.

“The very first trip I took was a two-week trip to Maine. It started out tough, but then it got easier,” he says. “We hiked Doubletop Mountain. It was the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen.”

His friend Gene Anderson, 18, of the Hill District has logged 3,200 miles in his five years with the group.

“I'm 42 and he's been to more places than I could ever dream of seeing,” says his mother, Monique Anderson. “He's building memories. He's matured and become independent. It means a lot to both of us.”

The group has trekked through Nebraska corn fields, up and down the Rocky Mountains, through villages of New England and farmlands of the Deep South.

“We're experiencing the country as you can only on a bike — and not driving 70 miles an hour in a car,” Rubenstein says. “We eat at a lot of McDonald's, but we also stop at little diners. Local people are always curious. They're amazed when the kids tell them how far they've come.”

Rubenstein shares the kids' excitement.

“I remember a trip to Atlantic City, when the kids saw the ocean for the first time,” he says. “We'd just cycled 100 miles, and we were tired and sweaty. We locked hands and formed a line and ran into the ocean together. That was pretty thrilling.”

The idea for Pittsburgh Youth Leadership evolved out of a cross-country cycling trip through Canada that Rubenstein took with his wife, Claudia Davidson, and son Jake in 2005.

“We saw what an incredible experience it was for Jake, how much he would benefit from it. After giving it some thought, we decided it was something we wanted to offer to other kids — kids who wouldn't have the opportunity,” Rubenstein says.

Three decades of defending people accused of serious crimes had convinced Rubenstein that providing positive options to at-risk youths could help break the cycle of negative behavior.

With support from a couple of hundred friends, Rubenstein began sponsoring trips and eventually established a 501-C3 charity that attracted grants from foundations, enough to hire a small staff. The organization operates out of Rubenstein's law office Downtown, which also is the starting point for many regional trips, like one a group took to Dunkirk, N.Y., in April.

“We pedaled from town to North Park, then to Grove City, then to Presque Isle in Erie, so the kids could see the lake,” he says. “Then we biked to New York. We averaged 70 miles a day. They're long days and demanding, but they're fun.”

Trips are not without mishaps, he says, recalling that two cyclists crashed in Nebraska and were driven to the closest hospital, which was 40 miles away in Idaho. “Their injuries weren't serious, but they got bandaged up. I told them, ‘You can ride along in the van today, but then you're back on your bikes tomorrow.'”

On a trip to Savannah, Ga., one boy made a wrong turn, and was discovered to be missing during a head count. “He was able to borrow someone's phone at a gas station and call me,” says Rubenstein, who spent two hours in the van searching.

Kids who misbehave are sent packing. “They sign a contract agreeing to certain rules,” Rubenstein says. “There's zero tolerance when they break them.”

When a group was acting defiant in Wyoming, Rubenstein put them in the van and drove them back to Pittsburgh. On another trip, a boy was caught shoplifting earphones in a Wal-Mart. “The store decided not to prosecute, and the state trooper was a nice guy,” Rubenstein says. “I said, ‘Shane, let's get your stuff. You're going home.' And I drove him back to Pittsburgh.”

The successes far outweigh the disappointments, says Rubenstein, who has become a greater part of some of the kids' lives, particularly those with absentee fathers.

“A mother will call me every once in a while to talk to her son if he's going in a bad direction,” he says. “One kid had stopped going to school. His mother said the only time he had smiled in months was when he got a Christmas gift from us — a hoodie with the number of miles he'd biked.

“I told him that the only way he's going on another trip is if he goes back to school. His mother says he went back the next day.”

The boy graduated from Oliver High School with honors, Rubenstein says, “He called me three times to make sure I was coming to his graduation.”

The young man joined the Marines Corps and met Rubenstein for lunch when he came home for a visit. “He told me basic training wasn't that hard compared to our bike trips,” recalls Rubenstein. “Now, his little brother is biking with us.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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