The Siem Reap-based NGO REACH will hold its second “Side by Side!” charity cycling challenge in early 2023 with the theme “Empowering Youth, and Connecting Globally”.

The event aims to empower youths by helping them to understand that they have the means to build their own futures. The challenge will give them a sense of purpose, and a goal to strive towards.

The Side by Side challenge features two events – a local student-led event, which covers 200kms in two days, on January 14 and 15, and the international event, which is 200km in two weeks from January 1-15.

“The local event is dedicated to our youths. 200km in two days isn’t an easy challenge, but it’s a challenge that drives them to a purpose and to commit to themselves, to their peers and to their community,” said Tadiwa Sibanda, REACH communications officer.

“The international event is dedicated to supporters abroad who want to engage in a life-changing experience and give back to underprivileged youths,” she added.

In 2021, REACH held its first challenge, with 30 students taking on the 200km target.

“This year, we are doing something different – it’s not being reactionary; it’s building a tradition and strengthening the REACH spirit. Up to 44 of REACH’s students will cycle 200kms in two days through the province of Siem Reap,” said Sibanda.

“Now that government-mandated Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted we are looking forward to the 2023 event,” she added.

When the pandemic hit, and the borders closed just 3 days into the organisations operations, all of its major fundraising plans were turned upside down.

Everything that it had relied on as the main sources of revenue vanished. Volunteers were repatriated to their home countries. Only 15 newly hired local team members were left to care for more than 100 hundred families, according to Emily Williamson, REACH’s director and founder.

She said the cycling challenge was created in response to the cancellation of an international charity bike ride planned for January 2022.

To raise funds for their poverty alleviation project, the organisation originally had the goal of cycling 650kms across Cambodia with a group of kind-hearted international supporters. When the borders closed, this plan became impossible.

“And so, we went to the drawing board to reinvent the charity bike ride. We thought to ourselves, if the international supporters couldn’t make it to Cambodia to ride, we’d have to get on our bikes, and have our students and team cycle in their place,” Williamson told The Post.

“What happened next was something incredible. Our youths began cycling every day, mentored by our team, and our international supporters opted to join in on the challenge from their home countries,” she added.

“Around the world, the wider REACH community trained inside their houses, during lockdowns, and with the support of international sponsors, we secured funds to run an exciting 200kms in 2 day event for our youths,” she continued.

She says after a few months of training, support and mentoring by the team, in January 2022, the youths began leading the way, proudly riding 200kms in 2 days for their own community.

Seeing the benefits cycling had on the students, they decided to take it to the next level, and established the REACH Riders Club programme.

Two years on, team cycling and the Side-by-Side ride now play a key part of youth empowerment and fundraising strategies at REACH.

The success of these events, and the funds raised, are critical in ensuring that the local team can continue standing alongside Cambodian families in their fight against poverty, according to Williamson.

In July of this year, the organisation kicked off its first full capacity semester, opening its doors to over 200 poor students and 100 families within the community.

“To celebrate, and to express our appreciation to them all, we are dedicating this event to our students. They are the ones who have inspired us to push through despite the hardships we have faced over the past two years,” said Sibanda.

Only students are allowed to take part in the cycling tour, in line with REACH’s strict child-protection policies.

One of the students – who cannot be named, in accordance with these policies –said the event is not about just him. It has a huge impact on all of the families in the community.

“It is an enjoyable experience that lets me learn closely about Cambodian culture,” he said.

“I believe that cycling teaches me lessons that I can apply in my daily life. We ride, learn, and realise how important it is that we help and encourage each other. Just like in life, no support means no improvement,” he added.

The organisers do not want to dissuade those interested in supporting the event, whether in Cambodia and from abroad. REACH wants people to join in and create their own life-changing adventure. While the students will complete their 200km in just days, remote participants get a head start and can complete theirs in two weeks.

There are now six international competitors signed up for the challenge, based in different parts of the world.

“The international participants are tasked with the responsibility of fundraising during their challenge. All donations go straight to our poverty alleviation programs,” said Sibanda.

“The biggest lesson that we’ve found Side by Side gives is one of commitment and purpose,” she added.

Ham Seangheng, youth pathways leader and teacher at the organisation, said his career path was made meaningful by the changes he had made and the hope and smiles he had brought to people through cycling.

“This life-changing experience will teach our riders real life values that they will be able to apply to their future goals. They are future leaders of their communities,” he added.

“Youths are a resource that we believe will improve their communities. Are you ready to come and join us at the next side-by-side event in January next year? I believe that people’s strength and commitment will make us stronger,” he told The Post.

REACH’s programmes help lift children and their families out of poverty through classes for kids in several subjects, health and nutrition outreach, computer literacy training and youth mentoring. They also provide food and financial assistance to families whose children attend school regularly and join the REACH Rider’s Club.