A Japanese Kiwanis club provides restored bikes for children in Cambodia.
Story and photos by Jack Brockley
Bicycles, bicycles, everywhere, bicycles. They come to Cambodia from across southeast Asia by the thousands. They’re worn out, broken and unwanted. Stacked eight feet high on tuktuk trailers, they’re puttered through the congested streets of Phnom Penh to Heng Ly Market, where stall after stall and street after street are packed with bicycle-recycling shops. There, their dérailleurs are replaced, wheels are re-spoked and faded frames are painted. If they’re lucky, a bell and basket are attached to their handlebars, and they’re given to the best kind of owners on Earth: children.
On a warm June Wednesday, Cambodia and Japan Kiwanians arranged 50 bicycles handlebar-to-handlebar in a shaded corner of Sen Sok Primary School’s spacious courtyard. Students rang bells, plucked chains and rubbed down tube labels that read “Kiwanis Club of Fukuoka, Japan.” Bolder kids jumped into the seats and, with the kickstand holding the rear wheel off the ground, pedaled in place.
Six members of the Fukuoka Kiwanis Club flew to Phnom Penh from Japan to present the 50 Heng Ly Market-restored bikes to 50 Sen Sok students. It was a special day for the children, who have faced a lot of difficulties in their young lives. Many of them formerly lived in an inner-city area where fires were frequent and sometimes tragic. Recently, the government relocated the residents to Sen Sok, a new community being built on the northwestern edge of the capital city. Though they now live in safer surroundings, the families still must cope without some basic needs.
“Some families can’t afford to buy the uniforms their kids are required to wear to school,” says Thor Koeun, past president of the Kiwanis Club of Phnom Penh.
Founded in 2013, the Phnom Penh club has established a reputation for serving children, regularly distributing supplies, delivering food and purchasing uniforms for area schools. Through their involvement in the Kiwanis Asia-Pacific region, the Cambodian Kiwanians have plugged into an interest among other Kiwanians to help. Working with area schools, the Phnom Penh club compiles and shares lists of needed items with other Asian clubs, whose members visit Cambodia with gifts of soap, shampoo, sugar, rice and, perhaps most popular among students, bicycles.
Three years ago, the Fukuoka Kiwanis Club established a sister-club relationship with the Phnom Penh Kiwanians and arrived to give away 50 bikes to students at Hun Sen Kompong Phnom High School. This past June, they returned to Cambodia. This time, to Sen Sok.
“Sen Sok Primary School has more than 1,000 students,” says Uk Chanveasna, president of the Phnom Penh Kiwanis Club. “Of these, the school identified 165 poor children. Because we had 50 bikes, they narrowed the list down to the poorest of the poor. The other 115 children received school supplies.”
Following a ceremony of introductions, remarks and a song performed by the children, the Kiwanians led the 50 chosen students one-by-one to their new bikes. One girl claimed her green 10-speed with a tight hug around the basket. A boy pulled his ride out of the pack, walked around the corner of a classroom and checked it out in private. Tires were pinched. Brake levers were squeezed. And the jingle of handlebar bells played across the courtyard.
Fukuoka Kiwanis Club President Naofumi Sato was happy.
“The Cambodian children were unusually excited,” Sato says, “and the fact our project could be that effective gave us confidence that it was beneficial.”
Bicycles, bicycles. Bicycles for riding to school. Bicycles for riding to a friend’s house. Bicycles for running errands. Bicycles for fun.
Bicycles for kids.
This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.