PORTLAND, Ore. — Peru's population of more than 33 million people was hit especially hard by COVID, with tens of thousands of kids now living without their parents in the nation on the western side of South America.
Dr. Wayne Centrone, founder of Portland-based nonprofit 'Health Bridges International,' said he doesn't know how many orphans there are in total, but he knows the problem and has seen its scope firsthand.
"We do know that children are left abandoned and need a place where they can find health, hope, home and purpose," he said.
Centrone founded his nonprofit in the 1990s, aiming to help children get needed medical attention. His team also helps train nurses and midwives to help revive a baby that's stopped breathing.
A few years ago, his work began opening doors for those orphaned children when Health Bridges International opened and began operating two orphanages in two cities in Peru.
"What I realized is children, just like all the rest of us, what we all need more than anything else is just connection," Centrone said.
The mission is to connect the kids with people, mentors — and most recently, bicycles — to better their future.
"Bicycles for us are a way for us to get kids out, to give them a space where they can clear their mind and refresh their body and connect with a caregiver in a different way," Centrone said.
Centrone said he first learned about how a bicycle could change a child's life a few years ago, when a child he calls "Marco" was gifted a bike from the director of the home he was staying in.
"That bicycle changed Marco's life," recalled Centrone.
He said Marco is now an engineer, has a family of his own and visits the home he grew up in regularly, and always mentions how bicycles saved his life.
Avid cyclist Hugh Givens joined Centrone's team on a recent trip in November. Givens races with the Bicycleattorney.com cycling team.
"I think a big part of it is, is that I relate to their desire to ride," he said.
Givens was able to fundraise enough money to purchase five bikes, and with the help of his team's sponsor, he helped buy 13 others to send to a country he'd never been to before, with language he didn't understand.
"I'm not a very good Spanish speaker, but we all speak cycling. They ride for the same reasons that I do," he said.
A fiend and fellow cycling teammate, Kevin Chudy, joined Givens on the trip. For decades, Chudy ran his own bicycle shop and spent years assembling and repairing bicycles.
"As teenagers, they were very focused and very respectful and not distracted. They had a true interest in learning about bike fitting and their position on bikes," Chudy said.
The team rode bikes with the kids for nearly a month, teaching them how to repair them, and Givens and Chudy said they know the boys gave more to them than they received.
"I think part of the reason we were all so touched by what we were given by them is knowing that they don't have a lot, and yet their hospitality was just off the charts," Givens said.
A team of people on two hemispheres, with one common goal of uniting people through cycling.
"We found, however, that the bicycle is more than just a smile, it's a portal to therap," Centrone said.
Centrone said he's planning to bring three more of the purchased bikes down with him next month, something he hopes to continue doing to help give the boys a chance to explore their world and grow their future.