As one of the first Omaha police officers assigned to the city's bicycle patrol, Lowell Petersen would ride through north Omaha wishing he could do more.
He spent 20 years meeting impoverished children who didn't get to do the kid stuff Petersen had loved as a child, like running and riding bikes in their neighborhoods.
Maybe their parents didn't have the money to buy a bicycle or an extra pair of tennis shoes, or their neighborhoods just weren't safe enough.
To Petersen's dismay, some of those kids grew up to become gang members.
Cycling and running had meant a lot to Petersen and helped shape who he became, so he thought maybe the same things might instill self-esteem in some of these children to keep them from turning to gangs.
“A lot of those kids never had a chance to ride a bike, or even be out and about to run around. I'd see it all the time,” Petersen said.
Petersen retired from the Police Department in 2009. Since then he's been working at Trek Bicycle Store in Papillion. Earlier this year the store owners — who also own another location in midtown Omaha — challenged Petersen and market manager Miah Sommer to “be more than a bike shop.”
They wanted both men to get involved in the community. That led to BRAGG: Bikers and Runners Against Guns and Gangs.
“Running and biking can be a vehicle for social change,” Sommer said. “Every kid should have the same opportunity.”
Earlier this year Sommer and Petersen teamed with the Boys & Girls Clubs and Girls Inc. to meet weekly with about a dozen children ages 10 to 14 to bike, run and hang out.
“I used to like to run around, maybe playing tag, but I didn't run,” said Brontelle “Milky” Mosley, 12. “My favorite part is the biking, though.”
The group put out the word on Facebook, which helped attract a handful of volunteer mentors — a mix of teachers, triathletes and more — to form relationships with each child and help instill confidence, goal-setting and life skills.
“I was, like, 'This is perfect,' ” said mentor Suzanne Higgins, 23, a second-year medical student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “I love running, I love biking and I love working with children. So I had to sign up.”
Said Dave Felici, north Omaha Boys & Girls Clubs director: “Riding in wide-open spaces, not having to worry about anything, is a breath of fresh air for our members.”
For their part, police say, groups such as BRAGG can help encourage children to stay on the straight and narrow, especially during the vulnerable middle-school years.
“Giving kids opportunities to get out and be active can be a big influence on them, and may be all that it takes to keep them from joining gangs or getting involved in drug use,” said Officer Michael Pecha, an Omaha police spokesman.
If Petersen was the idea man behind BRAGG, Sommer has become its executor.
Sommer spent the spring and summer working with community groups, businesses and volunteers to tout BRAGG and raise money. He and Petersen are both mentors as well.
To date the nonprofit group has raised about $4,000 from private donations. They used part of that money to buy the children bicycles and helmets from Trek at a reduced cost.
Omaha's Red Dirt Running Co. donated shoes; Greater Omaha Area Trail-Runnerz, better known as G.O.A.T.z, donated shirts and shorts.
Midlands Mentoring Partnership, the Fraternal Order of Police and Grace University also have donated time, facilities or other resources.
The mentors and children ride across the Omaha area. The group recently biked on the Wabash Trace south of Council Bluffs. Over the winter they often met in Grace University's gym.
When they complete the program this fall, the children get to keep their bikes and shoes. (Shhh! They don't know that yet.)
Sommer and Petersen hope that the children stay involved in the program through adulthood, when they can become mentors themselves.
For KaMya Love, 10, being active was new in itself. What she learned about herself was pretty cool, too.
“You can change. I just got to remember to always keep on trying,” KaMya said.
Some of the volunteers have already arranged to keep their mentorships going through Girls Inc. or the Boys & Girls Clubs. Sommer and Petersen are thrilled about that.
“We're not saying this is going to be the end of all of the problems,” Petersen said, “but maybe it will help. And that's what we hope.”