As I sit here with tired legs, three days on from our final bike ride with REACH’s teenagers, I feel an immense wave of gratitude for every sponsor, donor and supporter who made this event possible.
With a huge amount of support from people around the world, we have successfully regenerated a cancelled international cycling event into a virtual challenge for our overseas supporters which saw 30 of our youths complete the kms across the bumpy roads of Cambodia.
The Side by Side ride has ended up being the greatest silver lining we could have ever imagined.
In our infancy, during a global pandemic, it goes without saying that this event has exceeded our expectations on so many levels.
Personally, the greatest highlight of this replanned event, was to see first-hand how life-changing this experience has been for our youths. Throughout 2020, Cambodian children countrywide have had almost no access to in-class schooling. With this in mind, we are very proud that the REACH Riders Club has given 30 at-risk teenagers ongoing club training rides, physical exercise and mentoring. Collectively they have cycled more than 1,000kms together, and it has provided them with a much-needed escape from their incredibly challenging day to day lives.
To give you insight into how special the experience was, I’d like to share with you the story of Rider #23 who I had the pleasure of riding with last weekend.
A tenacious 13-year-old boy who is stunted due to lack of food, Rider #23 was one of the first children we enrolled into REACH.
As the story goes with many impoverished children in Cambodia, without money to survive, this little boy’s parents crossed borders to work in Thailand. Without his parents around, for years he has been raised by his hard-working granny in a scrap metal hut, squatting on the government roadside. To earn income, the granny sells small items from her shop, but the return is minimal, and not enough to support their needs. To help his granny, Rider #23 goes out scouring the streets for recyclable cans of rubbish to sell, he spends late nights roaming the streets to fill a hessian rice sack. In return for 1 full bag, he earns less than $1.50.
It is very common for the poor collect rubbish and as a result, there is very little left to find. Rubbish collecting has been exarcerbated since the pandemic unfolded; it can now take several days to find the correct recyclables to fill one bag.
When it came to the training rides, this little boy was absent more than once, but with ongoing follow up from our team, we made sure he came to a training ride at least 1 time per week. With so many external pressures, we were extremely happy that he was able to make it to the event.
That being said, compared to the other kids, he was undertrained and with him being so small and malnourished, this was something I was conscious of as we set out on Saturday morning.
What happened next was incredible.
Rider #23, one of the tiniest kids on the event was leading the pack. Shy but determined, when the heat of the day came, he kept on pedalling.
Last weekend brought with it extremely hot conditions, which meant a handful of our teenagers took sporadic rests in the airconditioned van…but not Rider #23.
As we arrived to the lunch stop, his eyes lit up; like many of our kids, he had never eaten at a restaurant before, and certainly not an all you can eat buffet. And so, he devoured 3 plates full of food, slurped down his isotonic soft-drink and got back on his bike for the second half of the day, smiling ear to ear.
With the afternoon heat setting in, I was sure he would lose energy, I was wrong. Low and behold, there he was, riding up the front, dodging potholes, signalling our left and right turns and waving to the kids as we passed through villages.
With only 20 kms to go until we reached the halfway mark, Rider #23 lost balance of his bike and came off on the dirt road. Immediately after his fall, with a trail of riders behind him, another kid accidentally cycled over his arm.
The ride quickly came to a halt and our Co-Director Joe rushed over with his first-aid supplies. Our tour leader Borith confirmed there was no serious damage, and the team began icing it. It looked painful and we expected him to sit out the final stretch. But no, instead Rider #23 shook it off, and got straight back on the bike – nothing was going to stop him from completing his challenge.
That night at the campsite, before dinner, we had a team building activity lead by Cambodian Rural Students Trust’s (CRST) students which encouraged the kids to say something they were proud of. Almost every single person at the table congratulated Rider #23 for his courage and determination after his fall.
He was so proud.
Following this, a young university scholar ‘Tey’ from our partner NGO CRST stood up and told his life story to our youths. Only a couple of years older than our teenagers, Tey told them all of his struggles of starvation and labouring as a child while growing up. His story of survival and his comitment to education was inspiring. With a similar story to our kids, Tey passionately told the crowd “it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks, don’t care if people call you poor, if you wan’t to be a business man, do it, do not give up on your education”.Throughout Tey’s speech you could have heard a pin drop, and when I looked over at Rider #23 he was on the edge of his seat, engaged and captivated throughout the entire speech.
It was such a powerful moment; so powerful that I sat there and wondered to myself, could this be a turning point in this little boys life?
After dinner, the withdrawn and shy kid that we knew, was nowhere in sight. Instead, Rider #23 was up on the stage dancing and singing karaoke; he was on a complete high from the day, his achievements and his recognition.
Unsuprisingly, on day 2, he cycled like a champion, his little legs were pushing the whole day. From jungle trails in the Angkor national park, to the Finish Line at REACH, he completed all 134kms without waivering.
As he cycled into the school he was met by a crowd of parents, teachers and the REACH Riders Club students, all cheering him on. His hard working granny was clapping and dancing as he completed the challenge. When he got up on stage to collect his medals, she was beaming with pride.
During the weekend away, each of these youths were told on many occasions that they are the young leaders of REACH.
Thanks to their sponors huge fundraising efforts, these youths now feel like young leaders that are also responsible for keeping their own NGO going.
Rider #23 went home Sunday evening, having completed the challenge for his community, with a medal and certificate in hand, feeling proud, acknowledged and worthy.
This little boy is one of thirty youths with a story, and one of thirty that experienced this life-changing event.
The Side by Side ride was a pivotal experience in these teenagers lives, one in which they felt seen, valued and empowered.
We could not be prouder, and we can’t wait to re-open our school to put their leadership skills to the test.
Thank you to every single person who helped to bring this ride to fruition. Our team is exhausted but grateful and we would do it all over again in a heartbeat for our Cambodia charity.