For this year’s spotlight, Bike & Build chatted with Celete Kato! Celete led the Central US 2019 across the country this past summer. She was born and raised on a dairy farm in rural Michigan. Her 29 years of life so far have been full of adventure!
Celete shared a bit about herself; “My dad immigrated to the US from Nigeria as a teenager and met my mom in college. Those two raised my brother I on the farm so we could be near my mom’s half of the family. For as long as I can remember, I have had a desire to go and see and do. And so I have! I went to a boarding high school in Indiana, college in Pennsylvania, and since then I have lived and worked in the DC area, Haiti, England, Thailand, and recently landed back in DC.”
How did you get involved with Bike & Build?
“I heard about Bike & Build from a Returned Peace Corps Thailand Volunteer who completed SUS17 just as I was beginning my own Peace Corps service in Thailand. She wrote about her Bike & Build experience in the PCV Thailand magazine. I read it and was immediately hooked. Bike & Build is the combination of my favorite things: service, travel, adventure, and a bit of insanity. Not to mention the added draw of social justice that is wrapped up within affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing disproportionately affects minority communities and I wanted to be a part of spreading the word about this injustice. Not having access to housing perpetuates cycles of poverty and precludes families and young people from having the opportunity to pursue their dreams. I have had a lot of dreams in my life so far and I have gotten to achieve some of those dreams because I had privileges that so many others don’t, especially young black people. We’re all given platforms and have social circles that we influence, I wanted to use mine to tell the story that a young, black woman who doesn’t look like your typical cyclist can indeed ride a bike across the country and can spread the word about our current housing crisis along the way.”
Can you share some information about your time in the Peace Corps? What were some big challenges and successes?
Much like a Bike & Build trip, Peace Corps Service is vastly different for each person. In my case it was some mix of challenging, life changing, traumatic, and rewarding. Peace Corps volunteers are now able to apply for specific country placements, but I left my application up to chance and was placed in Thailand. Each volunteer makes a commitment to serve for 27 months. The first 3 months are all training. This is where you are completely torn down, only to be built back up again with enough language skill and cultural preparation to survive being sent off to your site placement…alone. I was a little cocky coming in because at that point I’d traveled to 20 countries, including visiting family in rural Nigeria, and I had lived abroad in both Haiti and England. I figured I could handle a little hardship and homesickness. The Peace Corps quickly humbled me. Those first 3 months are some of the hardest I have ever survived. I was in a new place, living with a host family that spoke zero English, training in 100 degree heat every single day with 67 strangers – this was rough on me as an introvert. My biggest challenge in Thailand was honestly not so unlike my biggest challenge in America–my size and my race. Like much of the world, Thai’s have been conditioned to find beauty in caucasion skin and model-thin stature. I am the opposite of both those things and in Thai culture, it is common and completely socially acceptable to point it out. However, what started out as a challenge soon became something I was grateful for.
My site placement was in Rayong province in a village called Khaochamao. My region was known as the “fruit basket” of Thailand because much of the country’s fruit comes from that region. My host family grew bananas, mangosteen, papaya, and a bunch of other delicious fruit. Another great part of Thai culture is that they LOVE to share. Over time, my host family got to know me and became my biggest advocates in the community. What started as a rough transition being the large new foreigner with dark skin, soon turned into me being just another neighbor who loved fruit and biking. By my second year I was able to talk with my students about race and individuality and accepting all of the things about ourselves that make us unique. My final project before leaving Thailand was a Gender & Youth Leadership Camp where I got to see my students lead their peers in these important conversations. I couldn’t imagine a better way to close out my time in Thailand. Looking back at those two years it was my relationships with my host family, co-teachers, kids, and my bike that kept me sane.
How did the Peace Corps prepare you for Bike & Build?
Peace Corps volunteers in Thailand aren’t allowed to drive, so my bike was my primary form of transportation. When I first arrived in my village after training, it was summer break for school so I had a lot of free time. Other than hanging out with my host family and eating way too much fruit, my bike was my escape. The nearest shops (with a 7-11!!) and large weekly market was a 10 mile bike ride down the road. I would go at least 3 times a week when I first got to my site. Over time, I would branch out and try new routes. Biking was not common in my village, so this caused my host family a lot of concern, but I clung to it because it was one of the only ways I felt like I had any autonomy over my life. Biking saved my sanity.
In a lot of ways Peace Corps parallels Bike & Build in that you’re embarking on this wild and unpredictable adventure. In both cases I learned a lot about myself, my abilities, my fears, my limits, and my strength. Peace Corps was two years of figuring all that out, while Bike & Build was a condensed 77 day journey including many of the same emotions. The Peace Corps helped me learn that I can do hard things even when that doesn’t feel true. It also helped me learn to ask when I need help. I learned to speak up when I wasn’t doing well, and to encourage others without judgement, because you never know what someone elses internal voice is saying to them. Perhaps most helpful to me, was that the Peace Corps helped me figure out how to manage my introverted nature and find ways to make space and time for myself in the midst of being around other people. Hugely helpful for a summer spent with a large group.
What have you been up to since jumping back into real life this fall? Can you share about your current job and the work you are doing?
Post Bike & Build has been such a whirlwind! When CUS’19 ended, I spent a week hanging out and driving a lunch van for the Drift Cal Alumni ride before driving the van back east with two of my fellow CUS’19 friends. We dropped the van in Philly, I spent a couple weeks with my family in Michigan, and then I moved back to Washington DC. I was job searching for a bit before taking a position with an education technology startup called DreamWakers. DreamWakers is a nonprofit that uses free video chat technology to connect professionals to classrooms across the country, because “kids can’t be what they can’t see”. Working with 4th-through-12th-grade classrooms nationwide, DreamWakers exclusively serves schools in which at least 50 percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced lunch. The hope is that these chats lead to further conversation and thought about these young people’s futures. Shameless plug: if you know an educator who works with students that could benefit from this service, please send them our way! Likewise, if you want to volunteer 45 minutes of your time from wherever you are to connect with students around the US – sign up as a volunteer speaker!
What were some of your big takeaways from B&B?
This is so hard to answer – so much of B&B is a learning experience. I’d say my biggest take-away was learning the real meaning of trust. In my body, my mind, and my relationships. I could not have done this without my teammates and co-leaders. B&B stretches you to every limit, mentally and physically. The lows are very low and the highs are very high and you could experience both ends of that spectrum on the same day. There were so many days where I realized this trip was as much of a mental game as a physical one, and when your mind was in the wrong place, your body would quickly follow. Those are the days that require you to trust your teammates and to lean on the people around you. I tried to journal each day of the trip and I pulled it out to skim over some of the early days of CUS19. On June 9th, just a couple weeks into our ride, we had a climb that was about 1200 feet over 2.5 miles. It was the first time on the trip that I remember having to repeatedly talk myself into taking each pedal stroke, but my mind was determined, and my body cooperated, and my teammate supported me the whole climb. In my journal I wrote that it was my favorite ride day of the trip so far and it was the first day (of many) that I ended up going to bed feeling so proud of that mind, body, friendship combination.
For fun, can you share a favorite memory or day from your summer with CUS?
SO MANY! The first memory that came to mind was what ended up being my favorite ride day of the summer from Dubois to Jackson Hole, WY. The whole morning was climbing, but we took lots of snack breaks and ran into other ride groups along the way before cresting Togwotee Pass at an elevation of 9,659 feet and being treated to a sweet, sweet, 17 mile descent. On the descent you turn a corner and can see the Grand Teton Mountains. It was breaktaking. I cried and laughed and felt all of the emotions that day. We ended that 90 mile ride day with ice cream, dinner, and chill time at a local brewery. So many days on B&B were like that, but that is one that I will remember forever.