Building Community: El Grupo Norte

WRITER | NICOLETTE CHAMBERY
PHOTOS | EL GRUPO NORTE

Teaching Lifetime Wellness to Youth through Cycling

The El Grupo Norte organization began when two parents, both physical therapists, decided to help alleviate the snarled car pickup lines at their kids’ school and at the same time create a healthier alternative: a bike club. What they devised has engaged the community and the surrounding areas with a ride-to-school program that is changing people’s lives and setting children up for a lifetime of healthy activity.

Ty and Joanna Schmidt met in Tucson after college. They lived there for several years and fell in love with the desert, the ethnic cuisine, and the Hispanic culture. When they moved up north to be close to family, they carried their ideas and creativity to their new home in Traverse City. El Grupo Norte, which means ‘the northern group’ in Spanish, began with Ty riding to school in the morning with two or three kids, and Joanna riding home with them after school.

From the very beginning, the program was more than just bike trains, the term the Schmidts use to describe their rides. Rather, Ty and Joanna spent time teaching the kids important rules of the road, like signaling and negotiating a four-way stop. Because of their intentional and wholesome training, the program continued to grow and its impact spread. Around this time, the Schmidts started to consider what it might take to turn their program into a more formal operation.

Today, the organization has relocated from its humble beginnings in the Schmidt’s home to a flagship location at the Traverse City Civic Center called the Clubhouse, where members can attend workshops, watch and learn from the agency’s mentors, and use the tools and benches provided to work on their bikes. With the help of over 175 volunteers, Norte’s program is now in 11 schools in the Traverse City area.

Norte also comprises a three-pronged walk/bike advocacy initiative, which strives to make parks, beaches, and neighborhoods more accessible to walkers and bikers. The Megaphones inform communities about improvements that can be made and how such changes can benefit the public. The Misfit Bureaucrats actively engage in conversation with policy leaders, voicing the needs of the surrounding community and streamlining efforts to maximize collaborators’ time. The Tactical Urbanists work to generate solutions and alleviate barriers to making Traverse City a more walkable and bikeable community.

Other program offerings include the Traverse City Youth Mountain Bike Team, which provides four program options to accommodate diverse schedules and abilities. All rides are free and can be found on the organization’s calendar online.

From the verbiage Norte uses on its website to its comprehensive programs to the fact that both Ty and Joanna gave up their careers as physical therapists to carry out this critical work, it is clear that empowering youth through active transportation (and fun!) is at the heart of what the Schmidts are trying to do. But their model is more sophisticated than that and has high expectations. To use Ty’s own words, “We are investing in these kids so they can develop into confident and happy individuals who move more and sit less, who value their independence and physical capabilities and go on to live healthfully.”

El Grupo Norte hopes to share their program with other communities, acting as a platform others can build on.  Their website provides a thorough overview of their program options and identifies ways to get involved or otherwise support their organization.

El Grupo Norte  (231) 883-2404 | ElGrupoNorte.org