The Moment of Happy
During several years endowing orphanages around the world with bicycles, we often wonder why someone else hasn’t done it first.
88 Bikes at a rural Vietnam orphanage; image courtesy of Dan Austin.
“We never thought of that,” said my friend Sulakshana, who directs a partner NGO in Nepal. “But look at the kids! They’re so happy!”
What before was overlooked, becomes a no-brainer. Humanitarian efforts have historically focused on sustaining people: rescuing them from hunger, abetting their survival. But something was missing.
Greg Mortenson, celebrated mountaineer and school builder of Central Asia expressed it well in his recent memoir: "Playgrounds [for their schools] had not exactly been at the top of the priority list…”
Happiness is an amazing thing. It’s the ultimate renewable resource. The amount of happiness in the universe, unlike energy, has no limit. Some have called the bicycle the most efficient, self-powered creation in the history of humanity, but it may well be the most efficient engine of happiness, as well.
Dan Austin showing recipient his 88 Bikes sponsor card; image courtesy of Dan Austin.
My foundation, 88bikes, gives bicycles to children in difficult circumstances. We endow orphanages, ashrams, centers and schools around the world. One person sponsors one bike for one child. We give the child a picture of her sponsor in addition to her bike. There’s a world map on back showing where the child lives, and where her sponsors lives. Kids love it. They ask questions and turn their heads and squint and pull the card right up to their noses calculating the vast distance between two points on a map. They carry the cards around with them like talismans.
The whole event is called The Moment of Happy.
The first time it happened, in Cambodia 3 years ago, my brother Jared and I were caught off-guard by what I can only describe as a “tsunami of happiness.” It was so incredible, people 2700 miles away in Tokyo stopped mid-stride and wondered why they suddenly felt so good; people across the ocean in Los Angeles skidded to a stop in unison on the Venice Beach bike path and gazed out over the Pacific for an impromptu “Damn, that’s beautiful” moment.
Back in Cambodia, a happy ruckus had ensued. There was one scraped knee. One kid wanted a blue bike and got a red one. 100% efficiency, in physics—or happiness—is probably not going to happen. Just ask any parent on Christmas morning. But overall, it was such a scene of exuberance that we knew we’d have to do it again.
88 Bikes in Peru; image courtesy of Dan Austin.
And so we did. Hauling 200 bikes 10 hours up awful roads to a remote refugee camp in Uganda during a gas crisis on New Year’s Day was a gut-wrenching, but rewarding second act. A year later in Peru we gave bikes to kids in the Mantaro Valley, many of them HIV-positive, and shunned by family and society. And just a few weeks ago: 300 bikes to heroic kids around the world rescued from slavery.
The kids we worked with in Vietnam, Ghana, Nepal and India had endured conditions and treatment no human being, let alone a child, should ever confront. For many of these kids, childhood is a distant memory. But one thing remains the same: give her a bike and she becomes a child again.
We all do, really. I asked people around the world, young and old, rich and poor, to tell me about their first bike. I won’t forget a bikeshop keeper in Allahabad, India: a gruff old fellow with a gigantic face and fat fingers filled with rings. He gestured out over his small but impressively packed bike warehouse like a pontiff, “30,000 bikes a year! That is what we sell!”
We sat down at a rickety table to work out the deal. The chai wallah came bearing tea. He was a tough negotiator (the shopkeeper, not the chai wallah) and didn’t seem too impressed with the idea of giving bikes to kids. Business was business.
After we’d finished, I said coolly: “I have a question for you,” and turned on my camcorder.
He steeled himself, his pursed lips disappearing beneath a large mustache, his eyes narrowing. "Yes,” he said dismissively.
I mustered my best, equally-dismissive look and leaned in, nostrils flaring for effect: “Tell me about your first bike.”
50 hard years and who knows how many disappointments, heartbreaks, failed friendships, rebellious children—it all just fell away…“My first bike?” He said in amazement, stunned, his voice suddenly high and light, "My first bike?”
I nodded. The camera rolled. The shopkeeper leaned back in his chair. “It was blue,” he said wistfully. “I rode it everywhere, I was six years old.”
“Did you have some great adventures?” I asked.
“Many, many…” he said, almost smiling as he watched some slideshow I couldn’t see play a few feet above my left shoulder.
“Do you still have this bike?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he said with an easy chuckle.
“So, what bike do you have now?" I nodded out over the hundreds of bike frames hanging behind him like gigantic, plastic-wrapped bats from the ceiling.
“Now?” He looked a bit perplexed. “I don’t have a bike now,” he said softly, as if just realizing this, his eyes falling to his clasped hands on the table.
It may not always be as simple as this—but then again, it may. Give a child a bike and her world is transformed. Give her a bike and she can get to school and in many cases, avoid rape and danger.
88 Bikes in Cambodia; image courtesy of Dan Austin.
But most important of all, and purely and completely indefinable and unquantifiable: give a child a bike… and she will be happy.
Perhaps this is why it took Greg Mortensen ten years to realize the benefits of building playgrounds at their schools (“You really need to put them in,” chided his daughter. “All children need to play, especially ones suffering and hurting like the kids in Pakistan.”) Maybe this is the reason why well-meaning, effective NGOs fixate on sustaining the body and mind, while overlooking the needs of the heart. Maybe this is why we hear it from almost every one of our bike sponsors: “The reason I got involved is because I wanted a child to be happy.”
Happiness. You can’t measure it, you can’t put it on a graph, but you can see it. Oh, can you see it. And you can feel it, too. Many of the kids who received bikes in Uganda had been former child soldiers; some had watched both parents die of HIV. Many of the girls who received bikes in India and Nepal were survivors of unimaginable abuse as sex slaves. But even in these cases, where the kids were more subdued, their understated happiness was just as evident as that of the rambunctious kids in Phnom Penh who got up at 5 a.m. the day after the Moment of Happy to ride their bikes around the center, rousing the orphanage staff with a symphony of little bike bells…
During all these travels (including 17 countries, 2 1/2 months on the road and 12 endowment sites on our just-finished Project FOUR), a thought keeps echoing in my mind: is our ignorance in addressing the desire and need for happiness for all people at the root of poverty’s pervasive grip? Despite clear research from Jeffrey Sachs and other economists that, comparatively speaking, it wouldn’t require that much to lift the caul of poverty for most; despite millions of NGOs, billions of dollars and countless courageous individuals, poverty remains, unabated.
But it makes sense: it’s difficult to get excited—and generous—about simply sustaining someone. We want to see our fellow human beings do better than languish; we want to see them progress and find fulfillment in their lives.
Perhaps if happiness were embraced as a need on par with food, shelter, water, love—the tide would turn. Not because happiness in and of itself can drill a well or sow corn or turn back climate change—but because making people happy is a mission a whole lot more transcendent and enjoyable than just keeping them alive.
Perhaps all this time the bar hasn’t been raised too high—but too low.
88bikes is a very small organization working to affect the lives of a very small population. We hope that those bikes will last for years to come, and we have a small army of volunteers working to make that happen. But at the end of the day, we’re under no illusion that the bikes will last forever; we’re under no illusion that a bike will single-handedly turn an orphan into the future president of Nepal. Bikes get stolen; bikes break down. We hope they help the kids get to school; in most cases they do. We hope that the bikes (and the workshops and apprenticeships we organize) are catalysts for careers. We’ll see.
But we do know one thing: Every time we give a bike, the happiness in the universe increases just a bit.
Perhaps you can remember your first bike. I can remember mine. Like the shopkeer in Allahabad, it’s long gone, too, but it’s a happy memory.
Every kid deserves to have a childhood, to be happy.
And I think every kid also deserves to have a bike.
88 Bikes on a Cambodia bike ride; image courtesy of Dan Austin.
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