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.
After two years of extensive fund-raising he and his Foundation will be gifting a school bus to the Abayudaya Jewish Community that will also benefit two interfaith schools in Uganda.
The Walking School Bus is a registered charity, 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.”
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 24-years-old he is an Economics lecturer at Coquitlam College in British Columbia, Canada and beginning his doctorate on Economic Development at UBC this fall. And yes, his passion for The Walking School Bus is contagious.
In pursuit of literacy, Friedland created The Walking School Bus Digital Reading Program called SiMBi, (short for symbiosis,) in which volunteers read and record chapters of books in the public domain in English, making them available as audio/visual books, 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.
Last year, in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, The Albert Einstein Foundation and Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University (the scientist was one of the institution’s founding fathers,) awarded Friedland the $10,000 grand prize out of 1,400 North American entries, for his SiMBi literacy project.
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.)
The prize money was used 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.”
Back in Vancouver and recently returned from another trip to Uganda, Freidland is listening to a presentation by an intrepid grade 5 class at VTT (Vancouver Talmud Torah.) In celebration of Literacy Week in Canada, several SiMBi ‘recording booths’ have been erected outside the classrooms. The concept of empowerment, empathy and benefitting others- tikkun olam – is at the heart of all VTT projects created by grades 6-7 Hebrew teacher, Shoshana Burton. Her excited students have already recorded 187 books. “I’ve never had students so eager to read,” says Burton proudly, and whose grade 5 students have already raised over $2,500 (with a goal of $5,000,) towards the building of two more SiMBi Classrooms in Uganda.
Friedland relates that on this last trip to Uganda, he and his team constructed the SiMBi Classroom out of a 40-foot shipping container designed by Big Steel Box with UBC architectural student, Jordan Grubner.
“Fluency is one of the predictors of academic success. It’s a very important part of economic development,” Friedland affirms.
“Our COO, Michelle Gilman, did a control study of SiMBi, our reading app we have developed for use in remote villages to improve students’ fluency. Working on-site with students in Uganda, Michelle concluded that reading while listening improves student fluency faster using the SiMBi application. “
Moving forward, the team came up with the idea of a portable SiMBi Classroom built in Putti Village, Uganda to accommodate 24 students at eight long-table desks. The classroom is also solar powered and has a water catchment system. The classroom is equipped with 16 laptops and headphones for reading and listening.”
Just as fellow Canadians, Craig and Marc Kielburger founders of We Charity, (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.
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.
His accomplishments are all the more admirable because he admits to struggling with dyslexia throughout his formidable school years.
Like a whirling dervish, Friedland’s schedule races to keep up with his inexhaustible well of ideas. 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 5km around it,” he says.
On May 28th, Friedland hosts his annual fund-raiser in Vancouver, Access In Motion in which participants walk 5K like the students in Uganda. He hopes to raise $10,000 to build two more SiMBi Classrooms in rural Uganda.
I ask Friedland, who still 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. 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 2016 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.