For many adults, our fondest memories of childhood center on a bicycle. Those wheels represented a leap into independence with expanded opportunities to meet friends, bike to school, and venture to parts unknown. We can fondly look back on these memories and feel the giddiness of riding without training wheels and the unbridled joy as we cruised through town with no agenda.
For Juan Castillo, childhood memories of biking carry mixed emotions. He vividly recalls his father teaching him how to ride in a circular loop in their backyard. He also remembers leaving his bicycle behind, along with most of his belongings, when he immigrated from Mexico to the United States. Juan crossed the border at six years old with his brother, mother, and extended family to reunite with his father in Santa Cruz. They settled into their new life with only a backpack of clothes.
Shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz, Juan’s mother applied for a Santa Cruz County program that provided bikes to children. As a persistent advocate for her family, she found any resource available to provide for them. Thanks to her action, a county truck appeared one day with two new bikes for Juan and his brother. These bikes quickly became sources of hope and a bridge to Juan’s homeland.
“We didn’t have any toys or anything to engage with,” says Juan. “For a program to exist that could provide such a thing was just a blessing. I remember the joy that came out of it. It was the first time we felt connected back to something we had in Mexico. I think it gave me a sense of not feeling completely alone in this world.”
For the rest of his childhood, Juan always had a bike. He raced bikes around the track at his Watsonville elementary school, then biked to middle school with his brother, and after graduating high school, he biked to classes at University of California Davis.
Juan is now 29 years old and has dedicated the first part of his career to serving his community. His life has come full circle, as he now shares the gift of cycling with grade-school children in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties through his work at Ecology Action. He understands the significance of teaching a child how to ride a bike safely and providing access to bikes. This is a gift that transcends the material bike itself and helps foster a richer, more joyful childhood.
We didn’t have any toys or anything to engage with, for a program to exist that could provide such a thing was just a blessing. I remember the joy that came out of it. It was the first time we felt connected back to something we had in Mexico. I think it gave me a sense of not feeling completely alone in this world. — Juan Castillo
He also understands the importance of equity in programming. It’s one thing to offer a free bicycle and safety training, but it has more impact if it’s done equitably. To do this, we must consider the languages spoken in homes and the circumstances that lead a child to walk or bike to school, while also addressing barriers such as the need for safer street infrastructure.
Community climate solutions are most impactful when every community member is considered. Our goal at Ecology Action is to keep equity at the center of our climate work. This means working with schools to offer bilingual biking and walking safety presentations, partnering with other climate organizations such as Regeneración – Pajaro Valley to work toward a shared goal, or using donations from our 2022 Santa Cruz Gives Campaign to give over 20 bicycles to 5th-graders. These are the actions that create lifelong ripple effects for individuals and communities.
Juan now owns an e-bike that he uses to take his sister to middle school, following the same path that he took nearly 20 years ago. He is a strong advocate for sustainable actions in his own life and in his community. The imprint of his first bicycle is seen through his joy when he works with youth to teach pedestrian and bike safety. And he knows firsthand the impact this will have.
He recalls an experience at a school teaching 5th-graders biking skills. One of the students in the class shared that her father had passed away before he could teach her how to ride a bike. Juan was able to share the gift of cycling with her. She learned to ride for herself, and for her dad. There are countless other stories from the thousands of students our youth safety programming has touched. We know many of these children will have a story to tell in the future of how Juan and his team changed their life with the gift of a bicycle.
It takes one action to create a ripple effect. We encourage you to take action with Ecology Action through one of our community programs, volunteering, or donating. Together, we can shape an equitable and sustainable future.
About Ecology Action
Ecology Action is an award-winning California 501(c)(3) non-profit that’s been advancing community climate solutions since 1970. Ecology Action creates and implements innovative programs to help people and businesses reduce their environmental impact, while supporting more resilient communities. Learn more at EcoAct.org.