Gwen Hardeman, a former drug addict, received the Gearing Up Bicycle Ambassador award this weekend and a brand new Fuji mountain bike at the 2011 TD Bank Philadelphia International Liberty Classic bike race, in recognition of her dedication to biking and helping others.
As she rides her shiny trophy around Philadelphia, she said she feels free of her past life and eager to ride into a better future for her and her children.
Gearing Up is a city-wide program for cycling that helps addicts and abused woman, with a program in Germantown.
Hardeman came to Philadelphia 23 years ago. She traveled from Georgia, not by bike, but by bus. At the time she didn’t know anything about Philadelphia; Hardeman and her two children were escaping an abusive home situation when she asked the ticket attendant at the Atlanta bus station for three one-way tickets “up north.” She said she knew she didn’t want to go to New York City, so the attendant recommended Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia was not the refuge they had hoped for. Upon arriving, 26-year-old Hardeman and her two young children stumbled into the Mary Jane Hotel. In the morning, she discovered it was actually a shelter facility and was asked to prove her need. She gestured to her suitcases and showed the Greyhound ticket stubs from the 800-mile journey that had brought them there. The women at the shelter were quick to welcome Hardeman into their fold, offering her the $5 bag of crack that introduced her into the world of drug addiction and crime that would rule the next three years of her life.
Hardeman has a long list of thank-yous. Her humility and gratitude are an overwhelming presence in her story of personal triumph. She is grateful to the many staff members at the Riverside Correctional Facility, Mercy Hospice, the recovery house for women where she resided and CHANCES, the outpatient recovery center for women in Center City, which is where she is now working toward transitioning back to independent life. She’s particularly grateful to the people who led her to Gearing Up.
She began biking at CHANCES with Kaelin Proud, the CHANCES program coordinator. The two women quickly formed a friendship and still ride together regularly. Gwen admitted that she did not warm up to Kristin Gavin, founder and director of Gearing Up quite as quickly.
“Kristin worked us far beyond what we were used to,” she said, and recounted that the first time Gavin rode with them they had whispered among themselves that they “didn’t want her to ride with them anymore.” New challenges were part of the program though, and are now a constant part of life for Hardeman as she sets and meets goals for herself daily.
Hardeman referred to herself as the Gearing Up “police man.” She is an adamant believer in bicycle safety and encourages the other riders to always obey the rules of the road–even if it’s in the form of yelling instructions out during rides. She said she is dedicated to Gearing Up’s mission for health.
“Biking helps with health, all health, mental, spiritual and physical,” she explained.
This dedication to safety and health is part of the new life Hardeman has achieved thanks to bike riding and the Gearing Up program. When she left prison, she weighed 200 pounds. Now, at age 49, she’s around 170 pounds and has been sober for 11 months. She’s healthier than ever in all manners of speaking.
Although biking has brought incredible healing to Hardeman’s life, she knows that some things are not so easily repaired. Her alcohol and drug abuse and incarceration left her four children to fend for themselves, with no other family in Pennsylvania.
“That’s the path of destruction that is left by drugs and alcohol,” she said.
She tearfully recalled her failed attempt to mend ties with her family in Georgia. As Proud rushed to her side to provide support as she dealt with the painful memories, Hardeman said, “I’m closer to the people in this room than to most of my family.”
She said is thankful to have rebuilt the relationships with her children and said that they are all the family they need.
Hardeman said she has many goals for the future, but her commitment to health, safety and helping others is a thread that runs throughout.
“I never want to hurt anyone because I know what it feels like,” she said. “That’s why I want to help people, because I’ve been through it.”
One of her goals is to return to the Riverside Correctional Facility where she served her time to encourage other female inmates to find release through biking. She’s been out of the facility for almost six months and currently waiting for clearance so that she can return as a mentor.
Hardeman said she wants to share the feeling of belonging that biking has given her. She said that bike riding made her feel like she was finally living in society, not just existing. Biking gave her the sense of passion and motion that was lacking in her life.
Now, she not only lives in society, she’s giving back to it. Hardeman has participated in many programs and fundraisers, most involving biking, but others as well.
“I hula hooped for an hour at Love Park for Lupus,” she proudly claimed.
She rides in the city challenge for Mercy Hospice, the recovery house for women where she began her journey to recovery that eventually led her to Gearing Up.
She said the road to her new life really began when she received a six-month prison sentence for a contempt of court charge. She added the judge who issued her that sentence to her thank you list and said that marked the beginning of her long, hard struggle to gain control of her anger, get a better understand of her emotions and cope with bi-polar disorder. Among the many awards and programs she’s been through during her time with RCF, Mercy and CHANCES, she’s particularly proud of her anger management certificate. She’s also working on her GED at CHANCES. She’s completed nutrition, life-skills and parenting classes and regularly attends Bible studies.
She also treasures a plaque that her son gave her to tell her he’s proud of her. Her relationships with her four children and grandchildren are the sum and total of her goals and achievements in her recovery process.
Of course, her new Fuji bike ranks high on the list of awards as well. Throughout the interview, she adjusted the bike and the powder blue hand towel she brought to cushion the bike and prevent any scratches as it leans on various surfaces.
“At home it sleeps by my bed,” she said.
Not only did biking give Hardeman a sense of belonging, but it also gave her something of her own. Or, several somethings: “I’m almost in possession of three bikes now,” she said.
Hardeman will be building her own bike with Gearing Up soon through its earn-a-bike program. She’s ridden over 200 miles.
One of Hardeman’s personal goals with biking is for her and Proud to make the climb up the “Wall,” a steep, mile-long climb located on Lyceum Avenue in Manayunk. Although she said it may take a few ice cream breaks to complete it, she’s confident in her ability–something she wouldn’t have said a few short years ago.
Biking changed Hardeman’s life. “It gave me a reason to live,” she said. That’s saying a lot for a woman who attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions; she recalls the times when she didn’t want to live.
“I have a new life and it’s a life that will never encounter drugs again.”