The passion people share through bike riding extends far beyond the trails. We followed 12 riders to South Africa who had a desire to make a positive difference in communities very different to our own.
If you follow Flow’s Facebook, you will have already heard a bit about our recent trip to South Africa with the Sani2c Oz Tour. 12 riders from Sydney and two journalists – myself and Fiona Harper – spent two weeks in mid-May riding bikes, spotting animals on safari and experiencing the enormity of Nedbank Sani2c; a mountain bike stage race we’ve run a feature on in Issue 4.
What united and motivated these riders went far beyond biking. It follows, then, that the South African itinerary they planned wasn’t just about riding bikes either. One of the other main goals of the trip was to give something back to communities in this country who could use a helping hand.
‘Hearts of Hope’ is an organisation that was set up, in part, by Sani2c Oz Tour group organiser Paul Reid, a man who obviously loves a challenge. ‘The whole idea of the organisation is about trying to encourage or enhance the lives of vulnerable children – which could be any child whose lives are adversely affected by either parental abuse, abandonment or neglect. It is also about helping children who are affected or infected by HIV/AIDS and trying to give them a start, and an opportunity.’
One of the first projects Hearts of Hope instigated was to buy a house where a number of children could grow up in a stable home environment. Paul elaborates: ‘In 2003 we started with the idea of a cluster home. “Thabang” was the first house, in Johannesburg. Then we got a foster mum and six children. Later we bought another house and carried on from there.’
The first stop on the Sani2c Oz Tour was “I’Themba,” a second home in Jo’burg where renovations are currently underway to expand its reach. The completed project will offer bedrooms to 28 children, ranging in age from newborn babies to 21.
I’Themba has a warm, homely feel, which Paul attributes to Deborah van Dongen who manages Hearts of Hope on a day-to-day basis. The Oz Tour raised $43,000 to help with Hearts of Hope’s efforts in South Africa. To meet Deb and see one of these homes was a grounding experience for all.
We learnt that, there are 2.1 million children in South Africa who have HIV. Currently 60% of the children at I’Themba are HIV positive. Anti-retroviral medication is freely available in South Africa but the real issue is children developing a resistance to these treatments when they are not delivered at regular intervals. The house provides a stable environment, which allows for administering this care.
I ask Paul about the amount of time kids will spend in homes like I’Themba. ‘The whole aim is not to have kids stay with us too long and the primary objective is to get children back to their parents. The second objective is, if we can’t get them back to their parents, to see these children adopted, or in long term foster care.
‘Through the whole project,’ which also includes supporting families and the provision of food parcels, ‘There are over 1000 kids who we’ve touched in some way.’
After about four years developing the cluster home set up, Hearts of Hope began looking at other models they could use to help children in rural communities. ‘That’s why we got involved in a project in the Drakensberg mountains, building schools. We started looking at children in their immediate vicinity where they live, and actually looking at the root source of the issue rather than in the cities.
‘The issue you have in rural schools is a lot of the carers are elderly grandparents.’ One of the challenges here is teaching people who often come from a low education environment to value the pathways education could provide the younger generation.
The South African government has a good system for funding education at the primary and high school level, but Hearts of Hope are concerned that kids from underprivileged communities are hitting primary school on the back foot. ‘These kids are starting grade one, or year one, with zero base. So the whole idea about building preschools and a crèche is to provide them with that base before they get there,’ explains Paul.
Hearts of Hope identified seven communities they could help address this gap. The fundraising for the Oz Tour built a second school in the Emseni community (where one had been built previously). Emseni is in the high mountains of the Drakensberg area where the Sani2c stage race began.
Of the $AU43,000 they raised (which is close to half a million South African Rand) $30,000 went toward infrastructure and equipment. The rest will be used for education of both students and teachers. A small amount went to funding a mountain bike development rider in another community as well (a project run by Geddan Ruddock at Franschhoek Cycles an hour or so from Cape Town).
Before getting stuck into the mountain biking part of their trip, the Oz Tour riders spent two days at the Emseni school painting the interior walls. This wasn’t just about the painting, it was more about seeing community life and the exchange of thanks between teachers and tour riders.
‘I think fundraising money is the easy part,’ Paul says matter-of-factly. ‘The hard part is the realisation when you actually see what happens on the ground. In first world terms $43,000 probably is not a huge amount of money. But if you see what it provides in a very rural community in South Africa, it’s a lot.
‘For us as individuals it was a bit of an eye opener too. They don’t have much, but they are happy people. They thoroughly loved having us there, and that probably impacted people the most. They were very happy to have us there and chat and laugh and joke.’
Leaving the Emseni community was very hard. From the windows of our bus I saw goats and cows resting in gardens or walking down the road, wire fencing that I still don’t understand and so many people quite happily going about their day.
I watched as people walked with large containers to collect water. I wondered what it would take to get clean water into so many South African homes in a way I rarely think twice about back home.
I began to understand Paul’s passion for the work of the organisation in way that was different to when the fundraising back in Sydney began. ‘Ten years ago we highlighted nine different areas where we would build schools. Seven of those are now done. There are two more schools to build and I think we could probably do a very similar thing again. In Johannesburg, the vision is buy additional properties around I’Themba to setup additional homes and to develop the cluster home concept.’
What’s interesting to us is the way Paul sees an ability to use mountain biking as a driver for these projects, ‘The idea behind this trip was to go mountain biking but also to use the passion from riding to raise some money for something within South Africa. And to see the whole range of living conditions in South Africa.’ And that it did. It also stopped other South African riders we met from heckling us about the football. Work like this obviously transcends other sporting boundaries as well.
To read more about Hearts of Hope head to the website at: www.heartsofhope.org.za