By Jackson Gonzales
Thirty-eight days after my dad posted this quote to his Facebook account, he passed away. It would be an understatement to say 2015 has been an eventful year. Losing the most important person in my life, especially during my junior year of high school, made a huge impact on my academic career. When I think back to all that I’ve learned, most of it came from him. Whether it was how to tie my shoes, how to build a shelf, or how to season chicken; but most importantly, he taught me how to be a good man. Having the man whom I could rely on for anything pass away in an instant took an immense toll on my life. However, as much as I mourned I also grew a substantial amount. I took a tragic life-changing event and used it to push me further.
In July 2015, I was given the opportunity to ride a bike 400 miles to visit 7 colleges in 7 days with 10 other students. This was a task that required waking up at 5:30 in the morning every day to get on a bike and ride. Having no objective other than to get from point A to point B. We rode up mountains and through dirt paths traveling a range of 50 to 80 miles a day. The nine other students, whom I now call friends, and I rode together, each with a different reason to keep pushing through this empowering and intimate experience. Throughout this bike tour, I constantly doubted my abilities and at times, found my muscles locking up and my lungs feeling tight. Sweat and tears ran down my face as I pressed my feet down on the pedals and felt as if I only took one step into a journey that demanded leaps; yet I couldn’t wait until the ride was over just so we could finally see the college we worked so hard to get to. I knew I wasn’t doing this ride for nothing, I wanted to visit these colleges. Not only that, but I wanted to push myself, I wanted to improve myself. Though my father was not there to see me do it, I knew I was making him proud.
The weeks after my father passed away I had lost all hope; I felt helpless, like my life was falling down around me. However, I found the ability to keep pushing forward, using his own words as my personal compass. I found the ability to use these events so they empower me, fuel me, and motivate me to keep doing better than I did the day before. I’m not the same person I was at the beginning of 2015. I’ve grown, I’ve learned, I’ve felt, and most importantly, I’ve challenged myself. I’ve managed to experience both the best and the worst things I could experience in my life within the span of 7 months. Though he is not here with me physically, I know he would tell me to treat this next chapter of my life, college, as I did the bike tour. He would tell me to continue to grow, to challenge myself, and to push forward in order to become a better person; something I will never stop doing, like my father.
Thanks to his father’s loving guidance and the skills he acquired through I Challenge Myself, Jackson is proudly deciding among numerous offers from colleges he visited on the Bike Tour, including Syracuse, Binghamton and SUNY Cobleskill.
Ana Reyes started I Challenge Myself 11 years ago with 30 teenagers. As of today, the program has served 1,000 New York City publicschool students ages 14-19.
Students in Cycling Smarts are provided with bikes and helmets and ride between 15 and 60 miles after school and on weekends during warm months. They spend the winter months building their strength through a unique resistance-training program and learning about nutrition.
During its summer College Bike Tour through upstate New York college campuses, students sleep in dorms, meet admissions officers and, Ana hopes, become inspired to make college a personal goal.
"I want them to come away with [the message that] you can pretty much do anything you want, but it's going to take hard work," says Ana.
So far, the Cycling Smarts program can boast of encouraging results. Every high school senior who participated in the 2014 program is now enrolled in college. And all the students, like Jackson, who completed the College Bike Tour in 2015 have received college acceptance letters.
Ana also says that most students have a greater knowledge of nutrition and 86% report higher levels of fitness and perseverance.
“Students have become more motivated to stay fit, eat healthier, and work harder. Cycling Smarts has clearly been very successful in having a positive impact on students’ lives.”
To find out more about I Challenge Myself and its Cycling Smarts program, go to www.ichallengemyself.org.