Mark Clairmont |

GRAVENHURST —  Somewhere today in Cambodia a little boy is riding a bike 3-5 kms. to school, a girl is using a latrine and their family is eating rice for dinner.

Half a world away in Gravenhurst — it’s all and more thanks to the Rotary Club.

At their noon meeting this afternoon more than 50 Rotarians from across Central Ontario along with their friends, politicians, District 7010 representatives and local supporters officially celebrated the 10,000th bike handed out this winter given free as part of the praiseworthy Rotary Wheels for Learning (RWL).

Bikes that began back in 2007 when a tsunami hit Cambodia and vacationing Rotarian Lisa McCoy was struck immediately with the idea of helping cleanup in the aftermath.

What started as a beach branch clearing has — in an intervening dozen years — emerged from a return trip to help with school supplies, bicycles and computers, to now latrines, feminine hygiene products, wells, wash stations, more schools, tons of food, tooth brushes and drinking water filters among many other humanitarian projects that have changed the lives of thousands of Cambodian residents and “altered the lives” of more than 200 Rotary family volunteers.

Across Cambodia dozens of villages and thousands of kids, their families and communities know the Gravenhurst Rotary Club and Rotary Wheels for Learning.

It’s a mighty endeavour that has captured the imagination and spurred others to pitch in by donating weeks at a time overseas and to individually sponsor various full parts of the enormous logistical efforts it takes to undertake this bilateral international effort.

Rotarian Mike Cole, chair the RWL, told those assembled at the Opera House luncheon “We’ve moved on from simply bikes.”

RWL chair Mike Cole says it’s been a “life altering” experience to see and help Cambodians kids and their families with this 12-year-old powerful international humanitarian project.

He said that in the seven years since his first trip as a volunteer that it’s become a family affair for him, his wife, his daughter and soon his four-year-old son.

It’s like the families in Cambodia whose child receives a $42 bike (624 this year) and it rolls out to include siblings climbing aboard to do chores, go to work after school and share the pure enjoyment of an adult two-wheeler bought, assembled and when needed repaired in their village.

Kids with no economic hope of ever owning their own “slightly used” transportation are suddenly mobile and able pedal themselves distances to learn, whereas in Canada they would see them bussed to school or mommy or daddy drive them there.

There are no short cuts in Cambodia, where the remnants of landmines still linger, hidden beneath lesser-worn foot paths if a kids strays off course.

But it’s not just bikes, says Cole who took over the running from Rotarian Maryanne Marshall who followed McCoy as Rotary team leader with sometimes 20 volunteers travelling 28 hours to get to the starting point where in two weeks they will buy, assemble, check and assemble bikes (bringing repair parts with them).

That’s just the beginning. There’s outgrowth that has had more than 210 doctors, engineers, young people, DIY electricians and plumbers and Canadians with all kinds of newfound talents lending their hands and unintended knowledge to build things like a 10-foot tower pedestals to host water tanks to feed into hand washing stations.

Dig thousand of feet of ditches for personal and communal latrines that can last a dozen years and may only have to be emptied once.

RWL provide 85 latrines in its 2022 trip — which just barely was able to resume after a two-year COVID hiatus.

Bracebridge Rotarians Dave and Linda Brouillette, left, who were instrumental in helping Lisa McCoy start up RWL, were among more 50 club presidents and guests at noon’s celebration.

Rotarians and friends travelled to seven provinces, coving 1,300 kilometres to provide ‘Service Above Self,’ Rotary’s motto.

Think it’s a big deal for the volunteers?

In Cambodia Gravenhurst Rotarians and company are welcomed as god-like dignitaries.

Villages and communities roll out their version of the red carpet for the distribution of bikes. It’s an elaborate ceremony with political speeches, local dancers, gathered families and communities members joining in in a festival like atmosphere complete with a humble feast.

The widest smiling faces and gleeful sounds of hundreds at each stop is heart-warming, said Cole who never gets tired of it even to the last bike handed out.

Each bike recipient receives a photo with their bike, which is handed out upon return to the Canadian donors who ante up $50 per bike.

In Cambodia a similar bike can cost $120.

Again, beyond the bikes sponsors have stepped up to provide money for playgrounds, which have also inspired other local project spending by Cambodian donors and local governments.

It’s not easy every day, Cole a retired Canadian Armed Forces engineer says. “But it’s worth it every day.

That’s why he’s already fundraising and working on next year’s opportunity of a lifetime. Over the years they’ve had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide services.

And the group’s efforts have gains wide fame — including around the world through Rotary International’s club magazine.

“It was a great day to be a Rotarian — and friend of Rotary,” said Bryan Graham.

Rotarians take the cake as they marked a milestone in the club’s bike program, which now includes a wide variety of community health and education projects.

Outstanding work by the service club that prides itself in ‘Service Above Self’ deserved a standing ovation at the start of Thursday’s meeting during opening remarks.


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Twitter: @muskokatoday, Facebook: mclairmont1

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