ODISON ROBLESCome Christmastime, things get busy at partner Goodwill Panama, and especially in the bicycle mechanic training and employment program. The season’s demands — more bikes in operating condition, ready to be sold to workers and families flush with cash from year-end bonuses — keep senior apprentice and apprentice supervisor Odison Robles under sustained pressure. His supervisory responsibilities multiply with the work load, mentoring as many as eight apprentice mechanics (compared to an average of five at any one time during the other eleven months of the year).
The surge in sales at this time happens for a combination of reasons. Christmas, of course, is a time in Christian cultures when families purchase gifts, and a bicycle is a prized possession for anyone, young or old, whether for work, recreation or transportation to school. Year-end is when salaried workers also receive a “thirteenth month” payment from employers, facilitating the purchase of a big-ticket item like a bicycle. Vacations and the dry, temperate weather in Panama during this season provide the time and ideal conditions for bicycle-riding.
Goodwill Panama has earned a reputation for offering reliable bicycles at affordable prices. These are sold in its Panama City store — where it trains salespeople — or throughout the country via a partnership with the Rotary club network and with small merchants. Almost ten percent of Goodwill Panama’s annual budget for job training and employment services, job placement, and post-employment is supported through the sale of bicycles. This covers scholarships and salaries — such as for Odison and his peers.
Odison has come a long way. Growing up in Alcalde Diaz, Villa Victoria — a rural zone on the outskirts of Panama City where, according to Goodwill Panama director Angel Diaz, “the conditions of life aren’t the best” — Odison had dropped out of school, despite his parents’ pleas, and showed no interest in school or doing anything constructive with his life. Desperate because of the boy’s general rebelliousness, his parents brought the 14-year old to Goodwill Panama.
There they registered Odison in the Goodwill Vocational Education Center, where young people with special needs receive vocational education in the metal-working shop in the morning, complemented with primary and secondary education in the afternoon. Odison began in the bike shop, where he absorbed the basic technical skills and developed self-confidence, self-discipline, and the ability to work with others. After less than two years, repairing bicycles and little by little picking up additional metal-working and (equally important) interpersonal skills, he became supervisor of the apprentices.
Now 17, Odison as supervisor plays a central role in the orientation and training of youths entering Goodwill Panama’s workshop apprentice and career development program. New entrants begin with the repair of bicycles, becoming familiar with the components of bicycles and the simple hand tools required to assemble and dis-assemble them. They develop skills at following directions, working as part of a team, and taking on responsibility. Depending upon their interests and qualifications, apprentices move on to related areas, including wheelchair repair and soldering/metal-working putting together ornamental grill work for security doors, gates, and fences. Graduates can be placed by Goodwill with private firms through a four-month apprenticeship, establish their own businesses, or seek employment on their own. Over the last 18 months, Odison has mentored 20 apprentices.
With his achievements in diverse areas of metal working, and confidence growing with the responsibility of mentoring younger youth, Odison will soon move on. When he turns 18, he will be eligible for the corporate placement program. One day, perhaps, he could own his own metal-working business.
Odison continues to live with his mother and two brothers in Alcalde Diaz. He reports regularly fixing his siblings’ bikes and those of neighbors, making himself a respected figure in the community, and is happy with his daily labor within the Goodwill workshop. Thanks to Bikes for the World, Goodwill Panama, and individuals like Odison, there are some 15,000 individuals in Panama making use of the power of the bicycle to improve their lives.