Can mountain biking change the world? A month ago I would have said no, and then I heard about Shimon Schocken, a 58 year old computer science professor in Israel.
5 years ago, Shimon was riding near his home and he stopped at a juvenile correction facility he had passed a number of times. A spark of inspiration had lit up the idea of organising bike rides and turning a rag-tag group of youth offenders into a team of winning underdogs. He talked his way into the facility, went straight to the warden and somehow convinced him to release 10 of the incarcerated youth each week to participate in bike rides around the country.
“In my day-to-day life I am surrounded by successful and accomplished people, most of whom came from well-to-do families,” says Shimon, when asked where he got the idea for the project, “It seems unfair that many children don’t get the same chances as others, and I felt an urge to make a small correction.”
Once he got the green light and sorted out the logistics (raised the money, bought bikes and equipment, recruited volunteers) the real work began. As Shimon recounted in a memorable TEDx talk last year, it was not easy to engage and encourage the youth. It was actually extremely frustrating, and the young men, having come from lives of strife and neglect, found it difficult to cope with the uphill struggle and inevitable set-backs during the rides. Soon Shimon began to realise that his original vision for the group had been superseded by a new, infinitely more important vision: his rides were an opportunity to connect the kids with Love – for their country, the natural world, one another and themselves.
For the last 5 years, Shimon has been mountain biking with the young men every Tuesday “rain or whine”, as he puts it. When Shimon talks about the boys and their weekly rides, it’s clear just how much he himself has been shaped by his experiences with the group. Seeing the positive impact the rides have on the boys also inspires him to keep going, even though it’s not always easy – Shimon admits his biggest challenge is getting up at 4am each Tuesday to prepare for the ride but that “around 8am, when we are already 1 or 2 hours on the bikes out at large, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.” His love for mountain biking, the outdoors, and the chance to become such an important part of the boys’ lives is what keeps him going.
The biggest lesson for Shimon has been that empathy and love are more important that perfection. “At the beginning it drove me nuts when a ride didn’t work out as I planned, but then I realized that something more important than just riding was happening, and I learned to compromise and be content with less than perfect performance. This insight has had a significant impact on my life in other areas.”
For all of us who are looking for ways to make our lives count, Shimon offers the following advice:
- Choose something you enjoy doing
- Make a few hours each week that you can completely and whole-heartedly dedicate to the project
- Be flexible – the original vision and goals that you set for your project may evolve over time. Remember that the simple act of reaching out and touching other people is far more important than what you actually end up doing with them
Shimon followed his passion for mountain biking and had the courage to let his project evolve beyond its original vision. As a result, he is touching the lives of dozens of young people in meaningful ways and empowering them to shape their own destinies. I highly recommend watching Shimon’s TED talk to hear his passion for yourself.
I leave you with Shimon’s personal call to action for all of us who have the chance to use our lives to be the change we want to see in the world: “you have an almost infinite power to make a big difference to other people — it’s just a matter of deciding where you want to focus your energy.”
* Photos by Raphael Rabinovitz