Late for school? No problem, Mom will drive you. Pouring rain and college lecture about to start? Just call Uber for a ride.
“Everyday, over half a million students in Uganda walk over 5 kilometers both to and from school to attain an education. These students walk through some of the most unforgiving terrain in pursuit of higher education. I know because I walked with them,” relates Aaron Friedland, founder and executive director of The Walking School Bus and recently the 2016 winner of The Next Einstein Competition.
Listening to Friedland, some words still inflected with the staccato accent of South Africa, he’s like an astute and profoundly articulate old soul in the guise of a young man.
At only 23-years-old and finishing his Masters dissertation on Economic Development at UBC, his passion for The Walking School Bus is contagious.
His accomplishments are all the more admirable because he admits to struggling with dyslexia throughout his formidable school years.
Just as fellow Canadians, Craig and Marc Kielburger founders of the charity, Free the Children (now active in 45 countries,) discovered their calling as pre-teens, Friedland, born in Johannesburg, South Africa, was greatly influenced by his parents who grew up during apartheid.
“My Mom, (Phillipa,) was an activist in the 80s and was teaching Black kids English,” explains Friedland. “The police went to her house and threatened my grandfather to get her to stop. For that reason my Mom never taught us to speak Afrikaans as it’s equated with apartheid. ”
The Friedland family moved to Vancouver, Canada in 1993 and like most immigrants, their hearts never completely left home. While attending King David High School in 2012, Friedland’s interest in interfaith work intensified when J.J. Keki, a member of the Ugandan Abayudaya Jewish Community and founder of the Delicious Peace fair-trade coffee cooperative, was invited to speak there.
“We were incredibly inspired by J.J. and while many of my friends were going to Mexico or some other tropical place on winter break, we decided with another family, the Rosengartens, to go to Uganda.”
But not before students at King David High School raised $10,000 and Vancouver Talmud Torah contributed $1,800 to build a playground for the Hadassah Primary School in Nabugoye village, not far from Mbali.
Today, Uganda has five synagogues and three Jewish schools, interestingly, interfaith attended by Jewish, Christian and Muslim pupils.
“What really stood out to me on that trip was the journey that students had to make to get to school,” says Friedland. “So when I got home, instead of studying for final exams, I started working on one of my little ‘passion projects’ and that was writing the book, The Walking School Bus. My idea was two-fold: to raise awareness to improve their access to education but also use the money from sales to buy a school bus or other infrastructural improvements. I launched an Indiegogo Campaign and raised $12,000. We’re in the editing stages of the book, working with a publisher and hope to publish sometime in 2016.”
After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in Economics and Economic Development, Friedland worked at UN Watch as an analyst in a Fellow position at the Geneva-based non-profit. He also had an opportunity to speak at the UN in 2014 on the deteriorating human rights situation in Sudan. And although he became weary over the controversial institution’s considerable bureaucracy, Friedland learned a great deal about education in developing countries and it gave him the foundation on which to build his own organization.
The Walking School Bus was incorporated into a non-profit foundation in 2015, with a team of eight on its board and a mandate to develop a more holistic approach to educational access by also incorporating nutrition and curriculum. Says, Friedland, “I thought, what’s the point of bringing the kids to school on a school bus when they haven’t eaten anything for breakfast? Or they arrive at school and the curriculum is almost nonexistent? ”
“I want people to understand that we’re not just donating a school bus. Everything we do undergoes rigorous economic analysis that pertains directly to the growth and development in a specific community. We work at the grassroots level and speak with the headmasters at the three Ugandan schools weekly.”
In pursuit of literacy, Friedland created The Walking School Bus Digital Reading Program, in which volunteers read and record chapters of books in the public domain in English, making them available as audiobooks, then share with partnering schools in Uganda, across Canada and the U.S. “We’ve found that students are particularly attentive when they’re listening to other students read, says Friedland.
They’ve already created a Hebrew textbook, read by grade 12 students at King David High School that will be sent to Uganda to help Jewish students learn Hebrew.
Like a whirling dervish, Friedland’s schedule races to keep up with his inexhaustible well of ideas. Last month he was invited to speak at TEDx Jalapur and New Deli, India and made time to play cricket with children from the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.
“It was an incredible experience,” recalls Friedland. “I had wanted to visit Asia’s largest slum for quite some time but it never felt appropriate. Rather than visiting through the conspicuous slum tour, I went with a few locals and a friend and I walked in. The infrastructure, economy, and above all, the people completely changed my perspective. When two kids in the slum returned my dropped sunglasses, I was so touched.”
So much so that while in India, Friedland starting putting The Walking School Bus team in place “that in future will help build a suspension bridge, so students can walk 100 meters to cross a river rather than 5 kilometers around it,” he says.
Did you know that Albert Einstein did some of his best thinking while taking long walks?
2016 marks the 100th Anniversary of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The Albert Einstein Foundation was created by Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University (the scientist was one of the institution’s founding fathers.) The Next Einstein, inspired by Einstein’s legacy of discovery, invention and humanitarian ideals, is a competition open to Canadians and Americans with future plans to go international.
On a whim, Friedland entered The Walking School Bus Digital Reading Program in The Next Einstein Competition and out of over 1,400 submissions, won the $10,000 grand prize!
He was presented with a cheque at The Einstein Gala in Toronto, moderated by Anderson Cooper, CNN journalist and host of Anderson 360, with special guest performer, Bob Weir founder of The Grateful Dead (and huge fan of the Einstein legacy.)
“We currently have a team of developers in India and we’re using the prize money to create a downloadable App for people anywhere in the world,” Friedland explains. “ They can pull it up on their cell phones to read books and poems, see the text and even record themselves and send it in to our servers. Our team engineers them and sends them on to empower literacy for students,” Friedland explains. “Let’s face it”, he adds, “it’s a lot more productive way to use cellphones than just taking selfies.”
I ask Friedland, who remains so humble about all his accomplishments, what’s one of the most memorable moments winning The Next Einstein Competition?
With a big grin he says: “Afterwards I went backstage and I’m chatting with Anderson Cooper and I mention that I’m dyslexic. And Anderson says, ‘you know I’m dyslexic too’. Then Bob Weir chimes in, ‘hey, I’m also dyslexic!’ ”
TOP PHOTO: Aaron Friedland, winner of the $10,000 1st prize for The Next Einstein Competition for The Walking School Bus, was presented with a cheque by Murray Palay, National Chair of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University. The Einstein Gala in Toronto, was moderated by Anderson Cooper, CNN journalist and host of Anderson 360, Photographer Sarjoun Faour.