“When I come into the schools and bring the bikes to these kids and watch them smile, it’s amazing.”
In 2001, Howard Cato was shot seven times. He lost a lung and became paralyzed from the waist down. He wasn’t sure if he would walk again. But while lying in his hospital bed, all Howard could think about was his childhood dream: BMX racing. When he recovered, he found his way back to the sport, and it turned his life around. But it wasn’t enough. He wanted to do more with his second chance at life. So he started a movement to help kids stay active, focused, and off the streets.
In 1980 when Howard was 11, the kids in his neighborhood invited him to ride bikes with them after school. He wanted to play with them, but there was one big problem: He didn’t know how to ride a bike. When the kids came around the corner and saw Howard’s training wheels, they all laughed at him and rode off. He was embarrassed. And he decided then and there that he would become the best bike rider they’d ever seen.
“I wanted to prove to them that I could ride,” says Howard. “A year after that, I was doing tricks and hitting ramps and everything. I learned to bunny hop real high, and kids would see me riding wheelies and say, ‘Man, you really came a long way. You took it to another level.'”
And that level was BMX (bike motocross). Oakland didn’t have BMX tracks at the time, so Howard and his friends improvised-using abandoned cars as jumps and building their own ramps around the neighborhood. When Howard was 14, his friend’s parents took them to their first real BMX track and let them compete in a race. His first time out, Howard won 2nd place.
“I think I slept with the trophy that night,” says Howard. “It was the first trophy I’d ever won. And right then, I knew that BMX was for me. I wasn’t able to travel to big BMX events, but I competed in a lot of local stuff.”
But as Howard grew older, he got sidetracked. He stopped racing and started hanging out more on the streets, getting in trouble, and finding himself in dangerous situations.
And one night on the streets of Oakland, the worst happened. Howard was shot seven times, and he lost one of his closest friends.
“Both of us had kids on the way,” says Howard. “He didn’t get to see his, but I got to see my daughter…To lose someone like that, it hurts. I thought, ‘I’ve got to make some changes.'”
Howard survived the shooting, but he lost a lung and was paralyzed from the waist down. Lying in his hospital bed, he wasn’t sure if he would ever walk again. And yet, something kept running through his mind: BMX. He wanted to go back to his first love, racing. After two months of hospital recovery and rehab, Howard was able to walk out of the hospital. And one of his first phone calls was to his old BMX sponsors, asking for a new bike.
“I started racing again after that. Then I helped my son, Brandon, get into BMX,” says Howard. “I wanted him to have all of the opportunities I didn’t have to travel and compete. He’s now 25 and a professional. He’s been all over the world racing.”
In 2012, Howard decided to start his own local BMX team and 501(c)(3) called Bay Area BMXers. And right away, he knew that community outreach was going to be a big part of the team’s mission.
“BMX is an Olympic sport, but not a lot of people know about it. I wanted to expose kids to the sport and give them the same opportunity as my son,” says Howard. “It’s a great way to help kids learn about riding, bike safety, and living a healthy lifestyle through sports.”
To kick things off, Howard knew he would need bikes, helmets, and safety gear for after-school programs and summer camps. BMX bikes aren’t cheap and run about $253 each-not to mention storage costs. Howard knew he’d need some help to get kids riding, so he started a GoFundMe.
In just a few months, Howard raised over $3,000, which he put toward 43 bikes and safety gear. Over the past few months, he’s worked with several elementary school classrooms and organized summer camps. In total, he’s helped over 70 kids learn how to ride bikes and use proper bike safety.
But 43 bikes is often not enough, especially with Howard’s plans to expand his program to more schools in the 2018–19 school year. So Howard continues to raise money through his GoFundMe to add more bikes and safety gear to their supply. He hopes to raise another $30K—enough to buy 120 more bikes, helmets, and safety pads.
Ultimately, Howard hopes that by introducing the world of BMX to these kids, some of them will become dedicated to the sport and that over time they’ll stay focused on their dreams, live healthy lifestyles, and stay off the streets.
“BMX brings everyone together, no matter what race you are or where you come from,” says Howard. “When I come into the schools and bring the bikes to these kids and watch them smile, it’s amazing.”