As a third grader in the St. Louis Public Schools, Barry Bryant remembers having to share textbooks with his classmates. Teachers made copies of some of the pages, so the kids could take them home.
It wasn’t until Bryant transferred to the Parkway School District in the seventh grade, through the voluntary desegregation program, that he realized just what he’d been missing.
“There was a vast difference in the technology and literature and books available,” he said. “You’ve got study lounges [at Parkway], so many resources that aren’t available to kids in city schools.”
Now a biomedical engineer, Bryant, 38, credits his success to a solid education. He said he always wanted to give back, and he found a way to do it with Biking for Books, a nonprofit he co-founded with brothers Faraz and Safi Ahmad in 2013. The Ahmads are college students now, and both are avid cyclists who have biked across two continents.
To raise money, the organization holds an annual bike ride. This year, it’s scheduled for Saturday, October 19, and features 10-, 25- and 50-mile routes. Since its inception, Biking for Books has raised more than $100,000. All the money is used to purchase books on the wish lists of teachers at select elementary schools in the City of St. Louis.
Bryant said they take each school’s order, contact publishers, then purchase the books and affix Biking for Books stickers on them. He said the wish lists include books needed for curriculum as well as leisure.
Cycling in the City
The nonprofit’s annual bike ride departs from one of the participating schools and includes a jaunt along the Mississippi Greenway (Riverfront Trail). Organizers ask each school to bring at least 50 students, with volunteer chaperones keeping close tabs on the kids as they ride. Many of the kids don’t own bikes or helmets, so the group borrows them from St. Louis Bicycle Works, a nonprofit that gives kids the chance to earn a free bike through a program that teaches about bike safety and maintenance.
For last year’s ride, thanks to a special donation from the R. Whittington Foundation, Biking for Books surprised about 200 kids with new bicycles that they could keep. Bryant said it was a great moment for the students, but it’s not something they can do every year. The focus of the fundraising is on the purchase of new books.
The organization hopes to raise $50,000 at this year’s event. “Every year, it’s been going up. Last year, we had about 300 riders. I’d like to see 400 riders this year,” Bryant said.
Corporate sponsorships are also being sought. “I’m looking for ways to get the word out. I want to hit that home run where we get corporate sponsorships,” he said.
In addition to getting more cyclists involved, Biking for Books also wants to bring out people in the community who don’t have bikes and get them involved in a fun activity that has health and wellness benefits.
A Unique Beginning
Bryant became a family friend of the Ahmad’s after meeting their father, who is a cardiologist, about 15 years ago.
“They heard about my story” of growing up in city schools that lacked what Bryant called “the most important tool for learning: books.” As students at John Burroughs, the Ahmad’s had all the books and technology they needed and couldn’t imagine how students in the city could succeed without them. That’s how conversations about fundraising for books started.
Bryant credits Safi with the idea for a cycling event. “I’d been a Washington University basketball player and suggested Hoops for Books, but biking is better,” he said.
Seven years later, Bryant is just as passionate as ever. “We’re trying to have a positive impact on these children. If you focus and put your time and energy into education, it can cure a lot of our problems,” he said.
“Had I not been given a better education, I don’t think I’d be where I am,” Bryant added. “It changed my life.”
At the cycling event on October 19, officers from the St. Louis Police Department will ride four-wheelers as they escort cyclists along the routes. “They’ve been very supportive. It’s really cool to have them as part of our community,” Bryant said.
More information about Biking for Books and online registration for its annual cycling event can be found at Biking4Books.org. Activities begin at 9 a.m. on October 19, with the ride starting at 10 a.m. There will also be food trucks, live entertainment, and other community activities.
Author: Terri Waters is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Featured Image: The founders of Biking for Books are (center, in neon) Faraz Ahmad, Safi Ahmad, and Barry Bryant.