Oakland BMX racer rolls out new biking program to help inner city kids

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When Howard Cato was 23 years old, he lost a lung in a shooting that also temporarily paralyzed him from the waist down. Doctors weren’t certain if Cato, a BMX bike racer, would ever walk--or ride--again. 

“I sat up in the hospital for almost 2 ½ months,’’ said Cato in a documentary about his life. “I had a lot of things to think about, what I wanted to do, how I was going to change my life around. Everything that kept coming through my head was with BMX, the old days, that’s all I was thinking about.”

Cato learned to walk again and once out of the hospital, got back on a BMX bike and began competing again. He left the street life that led to his shooting and taught his 4-year-old son to ride; the boy went on to become a professional racer. He also raised a daughter, who took up martial arts and now works with children with autism.   

With his children grown and leading their own lives, Cato was searching for a way to connect more kids to biking and BMX racing. 

“I didn’t want them to end up like I did,’’ said Cato, now 50. “If I had had mentors like this when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have got caught up in a lot of trouble.’’  

In 2012, Cato founded Bay Area BMXers, a nonprofit organization that sponsors a bicycle race team and mentors underprivileged children. 

“Growing up, some of my best memories include BMX and riding a bicycle, and I want to help bring those types of experiences to the kids in our community,’’ said Cato, who grew up in North Oakland and fondly remembers meeting at the corner liquor store every Saturday to head to the BMX track with other neighborhood kids. 

Now Cato has a new mission. 

Earlier this year, Cato founded Flood the Streets with Bikes, a program that brings BMX bikes and safety gear into schools to teach children how to ride bikes and to reinforce the importance of biking and overall exercise. 

“A lot of kid’s parents can’t afford to get bikes so I go out and raise money to get bikes for these kids, get helmets and come out here and teach them how to ride,’’ said Cato. 

Cato currently has 43 bikes in his loaner fleet but continues to raise money through his GoFundMe campaign to add more bikes and safety gear to his supply. He said he hopes to raise another $30,000 to buy 120 more bikes, helmets, and safety pads.

At Madison Primary school in East Oakland Wednesday, more than 25 third graders got a chance to zip around the playground on BMX bikes for several hours. Six of those kids also learned how to ride a bike. 

“We are really excited about it,’’ said school principal Sabrina Moore. 

Moore said Cato’s program is just another component of the school’s overall push to get students to eat right, exercise and lead a healthy life style. The school also has a bike club, and this year is awarding four bikes to students who have perfect attendance. 

“This (Flood the Streets with Bikes) program is just one more way in which they can be excited about (biking), especially the students who learned how to ride today,'' Moore said.