Orange Coast College alum bikes from Seattle to L.A. in fundraising quest, personal challenge
For Juan Pablo Garces Ramirez — a Costa Mesa High graduate and Orange Coast College alum who attended UCLA and will start graduate school at Harvard in July — life is a series of milestones that prepare you for what’s next.
A Dreamer born to Mexican immigrant parents, Garces is only the second in his family to graduate from high school and the first to attend college.
“I’m basically first-generation everything,” he said in a recent interview.
His time at OCC instilled in him a desire to work in education that was further honed as he attended UCLA and began to teach and mentor at-risk youth. At Harvard, Garces will pursue a master’s degree in education, leadership, organizations and entrepreneurship that is sure to open new doors of opportunity.
But before his departure in a few short weeks, there was one more goal the Costa Mesa High grad felt compelled to accomplish, and did, on Saturday.
Garces, 30, completed a grueling 1,100-mile solo bicycle ride from Seattle to Santa Monica he’d begun 17 days earlier for a host of reasons logistical and personal. For accommodation throughout his travels, punctuated by driving rain and exhausting 45-degree inclines, he couch surfed or pitched a tent.
Accompanied by friends and former UCLA roommates Noemi Garcia and Bryan Villalpando on Saturday for the last leg of the journey from Malibu to the Santa Monica Pier, Garces was greeted by a small phalanx of supporters, including mom Marie Ramirez and dad Eugenio Garces, who’d assembled to celebrate one more milestone in an already standout life.
“I’d told myself it doesn’t matter if I accomplish it or not, I’m just going to try my hardest to do it,” he said by phone Monday. “But now that I see that it is doable for me — it’s definitely given me a lot of perspective on my capacity as a human.”
Garces not only set a goal to make it from Seattle to L.A. intact, but to also help raise funds for grad school tuition and assist local community colleges, like Orange Coast College, that operate programs to help students successfully transfer to four-year universities.
He established a GoFundMe campaign with an ambitious $100,000 goal that, as of Tuesday, had raised $1,346. He plans to donate half of whatever he raises to help students who must often overcome tremendous personal obstacles to succeed in college.
“Being a community college transfer, in a lot of ways, it was like a weakness,” he said of his own experience starting UCLA as a sophomore. “You’re sort of in this other group, where you need to create opportunities and social mobility for yourself.”
For Garces, the bike ride was more than just a fundraiser. It was a personal challenge to test the limits of his physical and mental endurance after a debilitating motorcycle accident in September 2019 left him with injuries from which it would take more than a year, and several surgeries, to recuperate.
Garcia and Villalpando aided Garces on the road to recovery, joining him on bike rides that quickly advanced from 10 to 50 to 100 miles. Garcia credits the group’s progress to Garces’ sheer will to push himself and others to the limit of what’s possible.
“Juan was the one who said we should bike 100 miles (in one ride) and we should do it within a month,” she recalled. “He made it outside our comfort zone — 35 miles this week, 50 the next and 75 the week after, then we’d do 100 — and we did it.
“Juan said it would get easier every week and it did. Juan said we would finish, and we finished,” Garcia continued. “We followed him because he finds ways of getting these things done.”
Dr. Edward Wong was principal of Costa Mesa High School, where Garces served as captain of the school’s football and track and field teams and helped take the Mustangs to the CIF championships for wrestling and football before graduating in 2009.
Now retired, Wong has kept in touch with Garces over the years and is proud, but not surprised, of all the young man has accomplished since leaving Mustangs Field for greener pastures.
“I always kept an eye on him because I knew this kid was going to do something. He’s not intimidated by things, and when he makes up his mind to do something, he does it,” Wong said of the standout student. “He’s just an amazing kid — amazing.”
Garces is spending the week recovering from the long ride, taking ice baths and engaging in mild strength training to ease leg pains. It may take some time before the lessons gained during his travels set in. But he’s already learned one important lesson.
“I could and I can do more,” he said Monday. “The sky’s not the limit. You can go so much further than that.”
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