Repairing broken down dirt bikes becomes therapy for troubled youths at Lad Lake
A child who’s lost today doesn’t mean they will be lost tomorrow. Not all kids find motivation in the same things. Sometimes, motivation comes in unique ways. For one particular lost kid, it took perseverance, a dirt bike, and a little elbow grease to get him on the right path. This is the story of Adam Watson, 37, of Milwaukee, WI.
Adam remembers his childhood well. “When I was eight years old, I was removed from my mother’s care and shuffled around the [foster] system for a while before I was placed with my grandmother,” he said. “By the time I was 12, I kept getting in trouble, fighting in school, joy-riding my grandma's van at night when she fell asleep, and even got into a chase on a Honda speed moped once.”
We all know the saying that kids will be kids, but there are some special circumstances, and Adam definitely had a different upbringing than most kids do. “I wasn’t a bad kid, I just did dumb stuff, and after a while, it started catching up with me.”
After a brief stay in juvenile detention and specialized shelter care for troubled youths, Adam’s life changed forever in 1996. He was sent to Dousman, Wisconsin, to a place called Lad Lake. “Back then it was just for youths with no family or nowhere to go. For some kids, it was their last chance before a kid prison,” Adam said.
Lad Lake is a non-profit mission center that was founded in 1902 and to this day provides safety, individualized therapy, and skill-building for independence for more than 1,100 kids every year. The center helps rebuild families and give kids a second chance in life, and the opportunities they need to succeed.
Today, Adam, also known as Big Rico, is a family man who still continues to ride motorcycles.
A special program for a special person
When he first arrived, all Adam wanted was to be left alone. He was angry at the world, which led to fights with the other kids and other problems that seemed to never go away. There was no hope, or so he thought.
For Adam, it was a lovely woman named Rose. “Rose was always trying to get me to come out of my room and do stuff to make friends,” Adam said. “All she could really get out of me when I would talk to her and her husband was that I liked motorcycles and fast cars.”
Since Rose still wasn’t seeing much progress in Adam, in an act of brilliance, she took him to a little-known shed on the property that housed some very special toys. “She asked me if I knew how to ride a bike,” he recalls. “She also asked if I’d ever ridden a dirt bike. Then, she showed me what was in the shed.”
What was inside the shed was a motorcycle enthusiast’s dream. “I saw a bunch of beat-up Honda dirt bikes, some partly taken apart, some stored up on hooks and a few ready to ride.”
It was at that moment that something changed inside of Adam. He knew this was his opportunity to improve himself and his behavior.
Big Rico's love for motorcycles all started at Lad Lake.
Adam’s journey: a boy and his bike
Adam had no previous motorcycle experience. The only other driving he’d done was with his grandmother’s van, and even that didn’t end well. “I thought you could just get on a bike and ride; I didn’t realize you had to use a clutch and change gears. Figured you’d just give it gas and it would go,” he recalls fondly.
On that very day, Adam was signed up for Lad Lake’s Nypum program, which involved learning how to work on and ride motorcycles. Today, the program still operates during the summer and is a hit with the kids that participate. Its sponsor, Honda, provides all of the bikes as well as necessary tools to tinker and learn how to work on the machines. It’s the perfect summer program, and the entire 360-acre property is used for custom bike trails sprinkled throughout the area. Confidence, problem-solving skills, and basic dirt-bike training are provided throughout the program. Towards the end of the Nypum program, the kids have an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned with actual riding lessons alongside an instructor.
When it was finally time for Adam’s first ride on a dirt bike, it was a memorable experience for all of the wrong reasons. He did what any young, overly confident kid would do: he ignored his instructor’s guidelines and tried peeling off. “I threw it into first, popped a wheelie and ended up on my butt with the dirt bike on top of me. I felt so dumb. My debut as a dirt bike rider and I didn’t make it five feet before crashing,” he said with a chuckle.
His instructor had a good laugh before encouraging young Adam to dust himself off and try again. Afterward, he picked up riding quickly and loved it from that point forward.
“Any chance I got to ride that Honda dirt bike, I would drop everything I was doing and run to the shed just to work on it. Didn’t matter what season it was, I wanted to be riding. I was a daredevil and crashed a lot, of course. I loved that bike. If there wasn’t anything to do, I would spend my time cleaning it and daydreaming about the next time I could ride. I loved that bike so much,” he said.
Adam's experience restoring and riding motorcycles at Lad Lake helped him come out of his shell and find himself.
All good things must come to an end, but their impact lasts a lifetime.
When Adam turned 14, his stay at Lad Lake came to an end. “They told me I could go live with my grandmother,” he said. “I was happy to have a real home again, but, dang, it was so hard to leave my dirt bike behind. I think I cried over it.”
There is no doubt in Adam’s mind that if it weren’t for Lad Lake, he would have never learned to ride a motorcycle other than for fun. “I didn’t think knowing how to ride a motorcycle was even a useful skill, but a few years ago I became a transporter.” Adam transports a lot of motorcycles annually, even taking a few of them for RumbleOn. Every time he sits on a bike, the memories rush in like a flood. “I still think of those days in the group home learning to ride. What a great time it was,” he said.
“I think the success of their Nypum program, first, is due to the staff that runs the program. Without them, it wouldn't be possible, so it's nice to know someone just cares enough to do that for you,” he said. “But also it teaches focus, responsibilities, and safety. Which, to a kid, is boring as hell normally. But, when you're having fun, it sticks.”
What would I tell the youth today, to encourage them, is ‘you’re going to see a lot of hard times out there, but hard work and doing what's right will pay off one day.’
- Adam Watson, a.k.a Big Rico
To this day, Lad Lake is changing the lives of countless boys and girls. Ninety-five percent of youths who enter their facility are from homes that suffer from a family crisis. It isn’t rare to discover most of these kids suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other serious anxiety disorders. They call themselves the “emergency room of the child welfare system,” and proudly take on the task of helping children work through their troubled pasts, their trauma, and their loneliness. Through proven programs that foster healthy relationships, Lad Lake has strengthened young boys and girls through mentoring and a level of exceptional care, whether that’s due to getting hands-on with repairing and learning to ride, or through nurturing that is so longed for by most of these youths.
Lad Lake has been at it for over 150 years and wants to continue their good deeds for another 150 more. For all that you do, we thank you. We know Adam Watson, or Big Rico as he is fondly called today, thanks you, too.