For four years the Burnaby Velodrome has been offering aboriginal youth a place to socialize and exercise, all because one man found a way to forge together his passion for cycling and his own aboriginal heritage.
Since he was 15 years old, Kelyn Akuna has been cycling both competitively and recreationally. The uprooted Hawaiian-American spent most of his formative years competing in cycling races around the world as part of the United States national team.
Akuna eventually made his way north for further training and found himself in Burnaby where, as these things usually go, he met a woman, fell in love and decided to stay.
Flash-forward a few years, Akuna is now the program coordinator at the Burnaby Velodrome and founder of the Aboriginal Youth Cycling program.
The cycling program came out of Akuna’s desire to pursue something that would appeal to both his passion for cycling and his appreciation for his own aboriginal heritage.
“I was really passionate about these two areas and I was trying to find out ways to combine them, and I approached the track with the idea and they were really enthusiastic about the idea,” he recalls.
The velodrome jumped at the idea and put forward enough funding that there was no cost to any of the youth participating – in fact it continues to be free to this day – and in 2010, some 50 youth turned out for the inaugural session.
“It was really successful especially because it was completely new,” he says. “There was a lot of positive response.”
Akuna partnered with the Urban Native Youth Association, which helped spread the word about his new program and offers transportation for kids in the program coming from outside of Burnaby.
Today, the drop-in program runs every Friday at 4:30 p.m. for both status and non-status aboriginal youth between the ages of 10 and 24. The program is open to all skill levels but new riders are asked to come out on the first Friday of the month for an introduction to the velodrome track.
While some participants have thrown themselves into the competitive sport of cycling – one placed third in the provincial championships last year after only one year of riding – Akuna says the true purpose of the program isn’t high performance training but rather to get youth active and excited about cycling, both as a means of exercise and transportation.
“It’s also meant to bring about some solidarity in the group and (we) use the bike as a vehicle for that,” Akuna adds.
The program is free for the first four sessions and after that Akuna says he is usually able to find funding to subsidize the cost for participants who want to continue – either through the Burnaby Velodrome or other community partners.
In the last four years, the program has continued to grow and evolve but what pleases Akuna the most is the way the program has influenced the Burnaby Velodrome community.
“(The program) is cultural in the sense that we’re working with kids of aboriginal descent but on the other hand, not everyone at the track shares that same history and so there’s this completely new perspective that other people get as well, and I find that the positive effect really goes both ways,” he says.
Any aboriginal youth interested in the program is asked to visit www.aboriginalyouthcycling.com for more information.