When Vancouverite Aaron Friedland, 23, heard his Walking School Bus Digital Reading Program was the recipient of the 2016 Next Einstein Competition, he was surprised, to say the least.
Studying for his master’s dissertation on applied economics at the University of British Columbia, he’d entered it into the competition without ever thinking his would be the $10,000 grand prize winner out of 1,400 submissions.
Friedland was born in South Africa and emigrated to Vancouver with his family in 1993, at the age of one. In 2011, while he was attending King David High School, he and his family visited Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community on a voluntourism project that would change his life and inspire the Walking School Bus.
“Three things left an impression on me during that trip,” he reflected. “One was the distance Ugandan students were walking to school, with many travelling five-to-eight kilometers each way.
“They needed a school bus. Then I noticed their daily nutrition of maize meal and wondered, what’s the point in bringing them to school when they haven’t eaten anything for breakfast, and when the curriculum at the school is almost non-existent?”
Back in Vancouver Friedland had two goals: to raise awareness of the plight of Uganda’s students by publishing a book, The Walking School Bus, and to use the money from book sales to buy a school bus. An Indiegogo campaign raised $12,000 and Friedland is negotiating publication of the book with a major publisher.
“But I received so much interest in what I was doing, that I realized the efforts should end with an organization, not a book.”
He learned the tools of creating such an organization at McGill, where he studied economics and economic development, and later as an analyst in a Fellow position at UN Watch in Geneva. And it was in Geneva that he became determined to form an organization around The Walking School Bus that might accomplish all three of his goals: not just the school bus, but agricultural training that would enable locals to grow more nutritious food, and an enhanced school curriculum that would engage students better in learning.
The Walking School Bus was incorporated into a non-profit foundation in 2015 and is presently in the throes of conducting economic research. “We’ve raised $25,000 to buy our first school bus, developed the models we need to ensure that the bus can be sustained in the community, and raised awareness in Vancouver, North America and parts of Australia about what it is to access education,” he says. Next month he will lead a group of 18 economists, professors, educators and volunteers to Uganda to deliver the school bus.
In The Walking School Bus’ digital reading program, volunteers create audiobooks that are shared with partnering schools in Uganda, Canada and the United States – a total of 40 schools to date. Friedland has also created a Hebrew textbook, read by students at King David High School in Vancouver that will help Ugandan Jewish students learn Hebrew.
“We’re looking for students to help us create more books,” he says, and encourages Canadian teachers to learn more about helping out with the Global Reading Program at thewalkingschoolbus.com.
The prize money from The Next Einstein Competition is being used to create a downloadable app that will allow people anywhere in the world to read books and poems from their cell phones. “They will be able to see text and even record themselves, and send it in to our servers. Our team will engineer those recordings and send them on to empower literacy for students.”
Far from limiting his sights to Uganda, Friedland’s vision for The Walking School Bus is global. When he delivered a TEDx talk in India in recent months he toured the Dharavi slum in Mumbai and noticed again the distance children were walking to school. He immediately assembled a team comprised mostly of students from the Delhi Technological University, to investigate the possibility of building a suspension bridge. With a bridge across the river in place students could walk 100 metres instead of the five kilometre route around it. “We’re doing our due diligence right now, scoping out project locations and conducting cost-benefit analyses,” he said.
Friedland said his parents, Phillipa and Des, laid the foundations for his work by teaching their children “how everyone was equal, regardless of what the media said or what the social norms of the time were.”
Says Friedland: “My entire life I’ve watched my incredible parents do good things, whether it was my dad picking up earthworms so they wouldn’t be crushed by traffic, or my mom giving money to every single homeless person she saw. I saw how they were able to positively impact people, and how good it made them feel. That motivated me to apply those same principles as an adult.”