Bikes for the World

Monday, February 8, 2016

Bringing Together Like Minds To Benefit The Future

These are the kids of the future. The students of Centro Escolar CaserĂ­o El Porvenir, seen here, are working to change their community in El Zapote. El Zapote is located within the appropriately named hamlet of Porvenir, meaning Future.

El Zapote school is run by two brothers Hector and Jonathan Morales, who, in an effort to protect the environment, in turn saved their town. By implementing self-sustaining practices into the school curriculum, the Morales brothers harnessed the creativity and ingenuity of their students to provide food for lunches, income to support their many environmental projects, and even practices to protect neighboring species from extinction. Read more about the school and the many projects students are performing.

Five years ago Hector Morales approached Bikes for the World hoping to include a bike repair aspect to his growing list of sustainable activities introduced to his students. Since that time, Bikes for the World has developed a strong relationship with an environmentally based organization located in distant San Marcos. That group known as CESTA also added a bike repair aspect to the many activities they support.

When Bikes for the World visited CESTA in 2014 both groups sat down to explore how they may be able to work together using the bikes donated by Bikes for the World. Within months of our visit, CESTA hosted ten students from El Zapote who came to the city for a couple weeks where they stayed at CESTA and learned bike mechanics.

Edgardo, seen here, lives 3 miles from school and uses a bike to commute every day. When he was selected for the program he was excited to learn more about bike mechanics. The students enrolled in the program all ride a bike to school or use one for errands in town. Most of them do not own their own bikes and need to borrow one from a friend or family member.

All ten student mechanics enrolled in the program at CESTA reported similar experiences. None of the guys had much experience working on bikes so the mechanics at CESTA started with basic care and maintenance and worked up from there.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the program was the friendships that formed in the workshop. Getting to know fellow students and working side by side with CESTA mentors left a huge impression on these young mechanics. For a country fighting against an alarming gang presence, these positive role model experiences are a priority among youth organizations.

Once they finished the two week program, all the mechanic trainees were very familiar with all the parts of the bikes and now know how to build a bike up from the frame. They hoped to take these skills back to El Zapote where they will train other students to do the same work. Because of their extensive background in environmental studies through their school at home, the guys know how important bicycles are not only as affordable transportation, but as a non-polluting transportation option.

Marlon graduated from the CESTA program and took those skills back to El Zapote. He hopes to become a doctor or teacher once he is finished with school.

For now, he will teach other students in the workshop El Zapote set up at the school in the spring of 2015.

As a pilot effort, El Zapote bought many of the bike specific tools mechanics need to repair bikes for their student workshop. They also acquired a dozen bikes that the student mechanics repaired and community members are now using to commute more efficiently.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Spotlight on El Zapote: The Future

In stark contrast to the tough streets of inner city San Marcos,  beautiful beaches and tranquil shores define  the western coast of El Salvador. Here, palm trees and fishing poles replace gang signs and guns.

El Zapote is a small community bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Guatemalan border to the north. Garita Palmera and Barra de Santigo are two nearby fishing villages. 'Nearby' is a relative term. In Barra de Santigo kids attending school in El Zapote would have to hop a 2 1/2 hour truck ride to get to school. While the two towns are close in distance, they are separated by an inlet of the Pacific Ocean (think Ocean City MD with no bridge). To cut the commuting distance, kids living in Barra de Santigo use a combination of canoes and bikes just to get to school.

To say these small coastal villages are isolated is an understatement. The infrastructure of a town is non-existent. Despite the absence of violence and gang activity notorious in El Salvador, these communities continue to struggle. With little economic opportunity within the community there is little hope for a productive future for many youths, who opt instead to leave.

When Bikes for the World visited El Zapote in 2014 we observed several coyotes (human traffickers) waiting on the edge of town to transport 'customers' to the nearby border. The week before we arrived, El Zapote lost three students ages 14, 10, and 8 to this illegal emigration.

The local school in El Zapote is run by two native brothers: Hector Morales, Director of the school and Jonathan, lead teacher. Together they are bringing change to Centro Escolar CaserĂ­o El Porvenir-- Porvenir meaning Future. In an effort to protect their community and build a better future, Hector looked within his own school for a solution.

Hector Morales
Now, the students are engaged in a wide variety of activities, many focused on sustainability and protecting the environment. Hector first introduced hydroponic gardening to the students over 6 years ago. They are using this skill to help feed the kids during lunch, with the excess being sold in the community to help fund the project. 80% of the kids took this skill home and implemented within their families.

Next, they added tilapia ponds and shrimp ponds. Other kids were taught weaving skills and now make hammocks that are sold to tourists. "When one has problems you weave and weave. You end up concentrating on the task and you forget your problems," says Luis, student weaver at El Zapote School. Luis looks forward to this activity that often spills over outside of school.

One parent noted, "I see kids doing really diverse activities like art, sports, and outreach. Before these things were very limited or didn't exist at all."

Hector Morales expands on the program, "The environment is a vital part of the curriculum at El Zapote School. As a school we think it is important to engage in several projects aimed at minimizing people's impact on the environment. We hope to transform our students into well rounded individuals with values and habits necessary for a peaceful, harmonious co-existence with the earth."

Because students are responsible for maintaining these sustainable projects at the school that require constant care, they are often going back and forth between home and school. Several years ago Hector approached Bikes for the World to inquire about receiving bikes for those students.

Find out what happened when Bikes for the World, El Zapote School, and bike beneficiary partner, CESTA, all sat down together in 2014...

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Featured Volunteer: Mark Winn-Ritzenberg

Mark Winn-Ritzenberg loves bikes. And Bikes for the World LOVES Mark Winn-Ritzenberg. We met Mark about a decade ago when he came across Bikes for the World while working as a teacher at Alice Deal Middle School in DC.

He knew immediately we were a perfect fit. He loved the idea of a bike collection as a community service project for his ESL students and quite frankly for himself. He continued his long run as a collection manager with us up until the day he retired from Alice Deal.

Retired? Right? He looks entirely too young to be retired! Biking can do that to a guy. For years he commuted to work by bike. He's also tailored many vacations around the bicycle including many long-distance bicycle tours.

Makes sense that he would partner up with us immediately. Well he also studied economics in developing countries so the idea of creating jobs through used bikes was appealing. Not to mention those projects we support that use the bikes to generate small business loans for villagers.

When we heard that Mark would be stepping down as the collection manager at Alice Deal we were very disappointed. For years Mark provided a great service project for his students and boy scouts and he was a great mentor with those students. But we knew he'd be out enjoying his bike so with reservation we wished him well.

No way, said Mark. I still want to collect bikes! Let's do it at my house in Palisades. And with that Mark picked up before he even walked away. His neighbors now occasionally drop bikes at his house that he holds until his annual collection.

And lucky for us, Mark now has more free time between riding and doing his amazing wood sculptures (which you can find decorating his yard). So now if you drop by the warehouse during a loading or just some random Thursday you might find Mark wrenching a bike. He continues to be a great help mentoring new volunteers and barrels through our pile of bikes knocking back the never ending stack of bikes to be prepped. And yes he bikes there.

Recently you may have seen Mark and his entire family (dog included) riding a borrowed Kinetic Sculpture for Bikes for the World in the famous Palisades Fourth of July Parade. He jumps at the chance to promote Bikes for the World especially when it includes riding a bike!

"I love the eco-friendly practice of breathing new life into an unwanted bike with the result of providing a very valued and useful resource to others," Mark Winn-Ritzenberg.

Mark has organized efforts over the years that collected enough bikes to fill an entire container...and it's not just that, he's gotten the financial donations to back it up, averaging over our goal of $10 per bike.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Spotlight on San Salvador: Miracle in San Marcos

Life in El Salvador outside a gang is hard to imagine for many youths, especially those living within San Salvador. Operating a small business without paying a 'tax' to gang members is practically unheard of. Walking the streets after dark alone, not recommended.

Public safety became a concern in El Salvador in the late 80's after the Civil War. While much of the war took place in the countryside, gang violence erupted in the city and never left.

Crime skyrocketed in 2002 and continued for about a decade. In 2012, with government influence, a truce was established and respected by the two most notorious gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang.

During the next two years, crime in the city dropped, including homicides. But in 2014 that truce began to fall apart and the killings began again. In 2015 the homicide rate in El Salvador reached 6,650, almost double that of the year before, making it one of the most violent countries in the world.

Organizations such as CESTA, located in San Marcos, San Salvador, fight back by lifting kids out of the street and giving them a productive safe haven where they can hang out after school, away from the threat of gangs and crime. Through the EcoBici program offered by CESTA, kids have the chance to build social skills while learning bike mechanics in the repair shop. Being part of the strong, positive community at CESTA, at-risk youth are given alternatives to gang life and access to job opportunities.

Since 2012, Bikes for the World has donated nearly 4,500 bikes to this effort. BfW Director Keith Oberg met with Silvia, the Principal of Centro Escolar Milagro (Miracle School) in 2014.  Miracle School has been connected with CESTA for over six years now, during which time Silvia has noticed a huge impact on her students.

Silvia tells us, the kids need activities to keep them occupied and away from the gangs. She sees CESTA as practically a second campus for the kids of the school. They are engaged in many of the activities CESTA has to offer, from leadership programs, gardening, and of course the bike mechanics program.

Many students either bike or walk the 1-2 miles to Miracle School. Over 20% of her students bike to school. They have a safe place to store their bikes during the school day and can access them after school to attend various activities.

The school itself also offers a number of after school activities for the students. She stresses that more than 90% of the student body has some connection to gang life, whether it be directly or through some family member. Keeping kids  engaged after school is helping to keep them safe from gang activity. CESTA is an excellent outlet for these students.

Silvia continues to explain the importance CESTA has on her students: at CESTA, kids from all different backgrounds are brought together on what could be described as neutral ground. Rival gangs and feuding neighbors leave their troubles at the door and focus less on their angers and stereo-types while learning more about what they actually share in common. Many former and current CESTA interns speak highly of the relationships that form over a can of grease by a bike stand or while truing a wheel.

The kids at Miracle School have changed since working with CESTA. Their grades are improved. They attend classes more regularly. They receive a balanced, nutritious lunch provided by CESTA which helps them focus and concentrate. What Silvia notices most is the discipline and structure that CESTA introduces into their lives. On the streets and at home things may be stressful and chaotic, but within the CESTA workshop there is calm and camaraderie. At CESTA these kids are learning how to build bikes, build relationships, and how to fight to rebuild El Salvador.