Monday, January 18, 2016

Biking Coast to Coast for Education

Orar. Soñar. Trabajar. Pray. Dream. Work.
– motto of Transformemos Honduras

Photos courtesy Transformemos Honduras and Costa a Costa: transformemoshonduras.com/cac/multimedia/
“Six years ago, we had a crazy idea,” says Kurt Ver Beek, vice president of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ, by its Spanish initials). It’s true, the goal of a cross-country bike race to raise awareness about corruption in public education was ambitious, even a little crazy, but no less so than the idea to reform the education system in the first place. Crazy ideas – converted into system-changing realities – are the cornerstone of ASJ’s work.

ASJ, through the coalition “Transformemos Honduras” (Let’s Transform Honduras), began working in the public health sector and the public education sector in 2009. When Transformemos Honduras started working with education, there were fewer than 120 days of class per year (students met just 88 days in 2009), teachers showed up to class sporadically, or not at all, and Honduras’ test scores ranked dead last in Latin America, a place they had kept since 2000.

Transformemos Honduras got to work recording days in class and teachers in classrooms, bringing their shocking findings before the government, the media, and the Honduran public. Parents and community members became active volunteers, the Minister of Education was fired, and education in Honduras began to change. After just five years, days in class had jumped from an average of 120 to 200, teachers skipping class dropped from 26% to 1%, and test scores jumped from last place in Latin America to 10th out of 15th.

The other crazy idea, the cross-country bike ride called “Coast to Coast”, continued to grow as well. The logistics of the race are daunting: 437 kilometers, eight cities in seven days, over 150 cyclists, and 35 volunteers including police escorts, bus drivers, and coordinators of everything from lodging to snacks. But that hasn’t kept it from becoming an important advocacy tool and a beloved tradition, drawing attendees from all regions in Honduras and from countries around the world.

At each of the eight cities they pass through, the cyclists stop for an event in the city center to honor five public school students for academic excellence. The children smile shyly as mayors place medals over their heads, and even wider as prizes of bicycles and tablets are revealed. Transformemos Honduras leaders like Carlos Hernandez, ASJ’s president, speak about taking action against corruption in the education system. Parents cry; teachers and principles beam. Public officials speak about hope.

“There’s a lot more to be done,” says Carlos Hernandez, “But we also need to recognize how far we have come.”

Carlos Hernandez, president of ASJ, stands with Oscar Chicas, 
World Vision’s national director for Honduras.

Coast to Coast is a perfect demonstration of ASJ’s ability to bring people together. Private business donate money and prizes, city governments offer spaces– bikers are students and mechanics and doctors, nonprofit workers and international visitors.

In a country where bad news is the norm, the week-long race speaks to hope for a better future. Bikers cross landscapes of incredible beauty, almost as beautiful as children with big dreams and the parents, teachers, and public administrators whose passions for education are making those dreams possible. Cyclists push themselves to their limits and past them. Friendships develop across cultures as all push together towards the same goal – better education for Honduran children

From the tropical beaches of Tela to the bustling urban center of San Pedro Sula, from the breathtaking Lago Yojoa to the capital city of Tegucigalpa, cyclists celebrate the good work of Transformemos Honduras and challenge people across Honduras to join in continuing it. By the time they reached the port city of San Lorenzo in the south, where the air smells like fish and sea salt and the sun burns hot enough to leave tan lines around hats and sunglasses, everyone is exhausted, but inspired – ready to get to work.

“Sometimes as Christians, all we do is pray that things will change,” Carlos Hernandez told the audience in Siguatepeque as skinny boys leaned against BMX bikes waiting for their turn to show off their tricks. “We have to do more than that. We have to dream that things can actually be better. And then we have to work.”

And people listened, from newspaper reporters to city commissioners, from the fastest biker to the tiny second-grader who is one of the best students in her city.

“Education is not just the work of these students here, and not just of their teachers, their principals, or even their parents,” Hernandez continued. “Education is the work of every one of us here, because that is how we are going to transform Honduras.”

Award-winning students pose with the winners of that 
day's bicycle race from Tela to El Progreso, Honduras

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