Everyone responds differently to a national tragedy, like the devastation across Louisiana left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some people donate money; others give blood or donate their time and expertise.
Jockey Aaron Gryder did something a bit different.
His concern was for the children who'd lost everything, and that Christmas was arriving soon. Still living in New York at the time, Gryder partnered with his nutritionist/personal trainer and long-time friend Mark Bertrand to begin collecting toys and other gifts.
“I didn't want any child to feel left out during the holidays,” he said. “It wasn't long before both of our garages were full, and we both had to start renting storage units. We ended up with two semi-trailers full of gifts to send to Louisiana, and 6,000 kids got to have a Christmas to remember that year.”
Even the semi-trailers and fuel were donated for the project, leading Gryder and Bertrand to wonder at people's willingness to help others and to start thinking about how many additional people they might be able to help.
Under the charity name “The Giving Circle,” the pair has responded to every hurricane since, including the most recent in Puerto Rico. They built a shelter for the homeless in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., called Code Blue, which offers both food and music so people have “an actual life,” not just a place to sleep.
“Now, wherever there's a problem, we try to help,” Gryder explained.
In 2010, the charity extended its reach to Uganda, building the first freshwater well, and over time it has added a pair of schools and an orphanage.
“I love that I've gotten to ride all over the world,” said Gryder, winner of 3,839 races and counting. “But I am just so proud that I get to help people.”
The two schools have a 100 percent graduation rate, and one of the math classes has transitioned into a registered bank for the region. In addition, a pair of playgrounds were built for the local children.
“It was so amazing to hear the children's responses when we sent over the playground equipment,” Gryder said. “When we were kids, we could walk to a playground from our house in five or ten minutes, but these kids have never even seen one before. It's just so rewarding.”
Unfortunately, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni is threatening to shut down the nation's orphanages. He says “orphanages create orphans.”
Gryder believes the reasoning behind Museveni's threat is that part of the local culture considers children with disabilities to be a curse. Those children are usually put on the street to die, Gryder said, but The Giving Circle's Koi Koi Kids orphanage has been able to rescue several children who are blind or mentally or physically disabled.
The orphanage doesn't cost Uganda anything, but it is currently standing on public land. The Giving Circle is working hard to build a new orphanage/boarding school on property it has already purchased outright, but these things take time and funding.
“We just want to have a safe place for our children,” said Gryder. “Every child deserves to know that they are somebody, that they have a chance.”
Gryder personally sponsors several children at the school, including one recent graduate with whom he regularly talks on the phone. He explains the best part of The Giving Circle is that all the money goes directly to help others, and all volunteers pay their own way to take nothing away from the charity. Neither Gryder nor Bertrand take any of the money for facilitating, either.
“It's amazing how a little bit of help from everybody makes such a big difference,” Gryder said. “It doesn't seem possible, but it has been because we have this amazing group of people who were willing to start thinking smaller, but in a big way.”