East of Elmgrove

Pedaling to Success

East Side resident Sara Stevens Nerone seeks to improve the lives of poor children in Vietnam.

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Imagine walking ten miles in one day to get to school and back. In Vietnam, that’s the reality many kids face every day. The trek is so long and tiring that many children, especially girls, stay home, eventually dropping out. Their chance for an education, and a better life, ends.

Sara Stevens Nerone has a solution: buy them bikes. She’s the founder of the Rhode Island-based Rock-Paper-Scissors Children’s Fund, which provides bikes, as well as arts and music programs, to kids in some of the poorest regions of Vietnam.

It’s a great idea born from her personal experience with the Southeast Asian country – and her desire to help people who live in extreme poverty, some earning less than a dollar a day. So far, 600 Vietnamese children have benefited from her good deeds.

Behind every great altruistic gesture there is usually a story of courage and hope, and such is the case with Nerone. Years ago, Nerone, an ecologist, and her husband, Christopher, a botanist, adopted two girls from Vietnam: Sophie, now 16 years old, and Phoebe, now 13 years old. Christopher passed away in 2010.

Nerone wanted Sophie and Phoebe to know and experience the country and culture they came from, so two years ago the three of them, as well as Nerone’s partner, Patrick O’Brien, returned to Vietnam to volunteer. It was a life-changing experience. The poverty was numbing – and heartbreaking.

Back home in Wakefield, she knew she had to help. She chose bikes for obvious reasons, but why the arts? Nerone had another brilliant idea: The arts would bring children and their families together in community centers humming with creativity and promise.

Vietnam is not as bad off economically as it was a decade ago, but, sadly, much of the wealth is in the cities. Seventy-five percent of the people live in rural areas; it’s still very poor. Nerone would focus on those regions.

She thought that music and the arts would be a wonderful way for students to escape the grinding poverty. Those programs would also give students a chance to express themselves outside the home and schools, which are strict with a rigid teaching style.

Fast forward to the present: Vietnamese boys and girls play on violins provided by the nonprofit and draw and paint in classes that are lively and fun. Music and art camps are offered in ethnic minority villages for 300 children.

The bike program is only for girls, who are more likely than boys to drop out if they don’t have transportation. Girls are expected to maintain the home and care for younger siblings. Biking to school gives them more time to help their families.

Nerone says bikes also give girls more safety. Girls are often targeted for human trafficking to the sex trade and sweatshops. A bike provides these girls with a safer way to travel. To date, nearly 300 girls have received new bikes, purchased at local shops in the country. They also received bike pumps and extra tires.

The nonprofit’s mission is so powerful it has attracted hundreds of donors, including East Sider Melanie Coon, who “bought’’ three bikes with a $165 donation. Bikes are $55 a piece. A $10 donation buys two bike helmets, and a $25 donation pays for a bike pump, extra tires, tools and safety training.

“I try to find meaningful holiday gifts for my family,’’ says Coon. “These bikes – and the mission of RockPaper-Scissors – spoke to me and seemed perfect for my daughter and my brother, as they both care deeply about providing opportunities for children in need. And I could not resist donating a third as a gift to myself.’’

Rock-Paper-Scissors is a passion for the entire Nerone family. The sisters are both musicians in the Rhode Island Philharmonic Youth Orchestras – Sophie plays the violin, and Phoebe plays the cello. They accompany their mother every year to Vietnam to give music lessons to boys and girls and immerse themselves in the culture. They also raise money to buy new violins for the Vietnamese kids.

Sophie was recently recognized for her philanthropic work by the Metta Students Foundation, which honors Rhode Island students who do inspiring and compassionate work. Quietly, without fanfare, Nerone and her daughters are practicing something rare today: goodness.