Bikes for the World

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Fabric of a Community

Dona Adela Bastos (seen right) lives in Upala Costa Rica. She owns her own business making and selling items she creates with her sewing machine. She is able to support her family through the sale of pillows, curtains, and intimate apparel.

Life in rural Costa Rica is idyllic. Towns are located off the main routes often accessed by small gravel paths. They are nestled beyond the pineapple fields and at the foot of coffee crops that loom on steep hills overhead. This peaceful seclusion, however, often cuts families off from the main artery of the country. This affects their access to jobs and income. It also impacts their ability to run basic errands for their families which become costly and time consuming.

While families have spectacular views of mountains and impressive volcanoes that make up much of inland Costa Rica, they are far away from the beautiful beaches that tourists come to see and where many of the tourism dollars land. Community members have serene lives but they are sometimes a mile or more away from the small businesses that even serve their communities.

Financially, these families struggle. Employment opportunities are sparse. Construction is a lucrative career, but traveling to distant job sites becomes a hardship for laborers. Likewise, many business opportunities lie on the outskirts of their communities or even further away. Without reliable personal transportation, some opportunities lie just out of reach for many people. Others spend a big percentage of their salaries on bus fare for lengthy commutes that often don't stick to published schedules.

FINCA Costa Rica, BfW's longest international partner,  works to improve the socioeconomic conditions and quality of life for the poorest families in Costa Rica, especially those living in rural areas. Their primary model to achieve this goal is through the establishment of community-run micro-credit groups- Community Credit Associations (Empresas de Credito Comunal, or ECCs). The ECCs are owned by local residents and provide financial services to their members that help them develop productive home-based businesses, such as carpentry, sewing, baking, petty commerce, and reinvest in their communities.

In this way ECCs are able to create their own small businesses in their own communities, many of them working right out of their own homes. Dona Adela, above, is a member of the ECC known as Canalete. This is the same community Bikes for the World visited in 2014. It is also the same area that was severely affected by Hurricane Otto last fall.

Bikes for the World donates containers of bikes to FINCA Costa Rica who helps distribute them among these ECCs scattered all over Costa Rica. The bike project, known as MiBici, helps create capital to support this micro-credit project and ultimately to help establish these small businesses that are the fabric of the community.

Additionally, BfW has donated over 300 sewing machines to this project since 2005. Some ECCs offer sewing workshops like this one in Pital El Encanto in San Carlos. A teacher is hired in the community to run the workshop and participants pay a fee to attend. Part of this entrance fee is reinvested in the ECC which helps provide those micro-loans to community entrepreneurs.

In this particular class there are 13 students, ten of them have little to no previous experience as seamstresses. The three who currently work as seamstresses will improve their skills to produce more intricate stitches and complex creations. The other ten are considering adopting this as a career to help support their families.

Luz Marina Morales Mora lives in San Francisco de La Palmera, also in San Carlos. We met Luz Marina during our visit in 2014. She sews for her family and neighbors, creating pillows, dresses, and other various linen items for personal wear and household use. She also makes and sells toy stick horses for children.

Our container that arrived last fall in the middle of the hurricane was redirected when its destined community of Upala was damaged by floods and mud from the storm. While the community no longer had the warehouse available to accept the 500 bikes in the container, they were able to receive the 26 sewing machines included in that container.

Mrs. Mirna Ordonez received one of those sewing machines to improve her business that was set up through her ECCs micro-credit program. Dona Mirna makes tents and mosquito nets and sells them to neighbors.

A replacement container of bikes was shipped from our South Carolina location earlier this month and is scheduled to arrive any day. These bikes will be distributed in communities within Upala.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Stitch In Time

Nalongo Nagobi Joweliya was a single mother of three who had just turned 40 when she was imprisoned for aggravated assault. She served two years before being released.

In Uganda, prison sentences are particularly hard on women, many of them wrongly accused. Prisons are overcrowded and inmates are routinely cut off from family visits due to travel complications.

Many are single mothers like Joweliya. They need to rely on the generosity of family or friends who look after their children while they are incarcerated. Visits become a burden many of these 'foster' moms cannot bear.

When women are released from prison it's like starting over. They may not have a home to go home to. The world has moved on without them. Their kids are scattered and resettled in other families, most are struggling to get by.

Training programs, like the sewing project sponsored by the Prisoners Support Organization in Uganda, are vital to helping ex-offenders get a leg up once they are released.

Kevin Okoth, seen here, participated in a life skills program while incarcerated at Jinja prison.  In the program she learned about business and computers. She also honed her tailoring and knitting skills.

Okoth was sent to prison after a neighbor accused her of robbing him at gun point. Without the funds to pay for lawyer Okoth was sent to the women's prison after being held for a week in a local holding cell. Finally, after three years in prison, the case was dismissed and Okoth was released.

During her sentence her children were cared for by family members. During that period none of the children were enrolled in school, unable to pay for books and school fees. They also had to pick up odd jobs to help financially in their temporary home.

Okoth was definitely one of the lucky ones. Upon her release, the program offered her a sewing machine which she put to immediate use. Okoth began her own tailoring business making clothes for women and uniforms for students. She had money coming in, got her kids back in school, and her spirits rose exponentially.

For nearly a decade, Bikes for the World supported this project with bikes and sewing machines which helped create new lives for ex-offenders eager to start over. We contributed over 60 sewing machines to the Women's Prison Support Organization since 2007. Each donated machine helped provide valuable training classes, equipping young women with life skills to mend their lives.  They also provided the means to start new small businesses to help these struggling mothers rebuild their families after years apart.

Friday, February 10, 2017

From Carolina to Costa Rica, With Love

Ralph and Kitty Echenique
While Bikes for the World folks up north trained an eye on a groundhog hole waiting to hear if spring was near or far, our South Carolina crew was busy as a beaver preparing for their first ever container loading.

February 3 & 4 our newest BfW chapter saw their hard work pay off. After more than a year of collecting bikes, this motley crew set out to move 500 or so bikes from a roomy warehouse to a cramped shipping container. And just in time, as they were asked to vacate that warehouse this month.

Cape Fear Academy crew led by Becky Copenhaver
This effort really started back in the fall of 2015 with BfW partner Cape Fear Academy. This school effort brought 133 bikes from North Carolina to South Carolina to jump start the Carolina chapter of BfW.

To be honest, the 'effort' really started with Navy retiree Paul Keefer, who we honored last month. Paul is the area coordinator who secured free warehouse space and coordinated pick ups of loads of bikes from two to two hundred. He has also worked tirelessly to bring the BfW name and mission to hundreds of Carolinians who had only wondered before, "what can I do with this old bike?"

Paige and Jaime Stacy
With the help of Bikes for the World, the answer became simple...DONATE IT! But Paul quickly found getting the word out is practically a full time job. Thankfully he found Jaime Stacy who has been leading much of the communication outreach effort down there (not to mention providing some of the muscle too).

Paul also spent most of last year reaching out to clubs and groups introducing our idea of collecting bikes as a rewarding service project. "What I love most about Bikes for the World is the simplicity and power of the concept. Collections are an exciting, uplifting event for all," said Paul in a recent newspaper article. And in waves, the bikes started pouring in.

Paul with Tom Lawrence
There was the collection we connected him on at The Peak Church in Apex, North Carolina. Another 100 bikes. Collections at Coastal Carolina University, Carolina Youth Development Center and Sow Seasonal Urban Farm in South Carolina- 25 more...

A truckload of bikes came in late last year from Tom Lawrence of Sumter. Another big donation from Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Brand new bikes from Union United Methodist...

Those of you who are familiar with our operation in DC know it's much more than just finding bikes, storing them, and then throwing them on a container. In order to fit the maximum number of bikes in a shipment there is a lot of hands on prep work required.

Navy crew regular volunteers
And Paul turned to the hardest working crew he knew...the Navy. Borrowing muscle from the Nuclear Power School not far away, Paul had much of the work done prior to this weekend.

But there were still parts to be stripped off bikes, boxes of parts to pack, and OSB to cut (to stack the bikes in the trailer). And with the Navy crew unavailable this weekend Paul found himself short on help.

Or so he thought. Sow Seasonal Farm had a few volunteers on hand for the event and so did Premier Logistics. Premier Logistics is the company who loaned Paul the use of the warehouse. And as it turns out loaned us much of the muscle for the load!

Bob Leftwich sharing loading tips with new crew
So with the guidance of Operations Manager Bob Leftwich, who we sent down there to assist, this inexperienced crew knocked out this task effortlessly. And they even maximized the load by surpassing the average 500 bikes mark!

This container will set sail this week heading to Costa Rica. The donated bikes are expected to arrive in Upala at the end of the month. You'll remember we told you about Upala last November when we had a container sitting in port waiting to be delivered to this same community. And then Hurricane Otto hit and efforts to clean and rebuild the town redirected focus. You can read more about that on the blog.

Ron Watts and Christina Russell
But now Upala is back and in need of that transportation our bikes deliver. We were thrilled to have this container ready to go out of South Carolina just as Upala was ready to resume the bike program.

We are even more thrilled to hear a report back from Paul that Carolina is cruising ahead to collect even more bikes. Not needing a groundhog to confirm warmer weather down south, this SC chapter already has its first collection of the year on the calendar for March. We expect another 1,000 bikes before summer from a commitment through the SC United Methodist Annual Conference. We are actively adding new locations to our calendar in keep your eye on our schedule for something near you!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Featured Volunteer: Zak Elmanakhly

So this face might be unfamiliar to many of our regulars around the warehouse, but his impact to our program should not go unnoticed.

Zak Elmanakhly has gone the distance for Bikes for the World, quite literally. Miles and miles and miles. Zak has been helping us centralize and condense our stock pile of bikes that stretches along the east coast.

Zak came to us in November of last year after talking with Andy Williamson who works with us on collections and also on local donations to kids in Kentucky. Andy has quite a bit of experience hauling large number of bikes and pulled Zak into the conversation.

Andy Williamson
Not to get too much off topic, but Andy also has quite a bit of miles in for Bikes for the World. We honored him a few years ago for his work with that bike donation in Kentucky. He's now moved, repaired, and delivered nearly 900 bikes to kids in this program!

But back to Zak... so he started last fall by collecting some of our New York bikes and bringing them down to our main warehouse in Virginia. We needed these bikes to help round out our final containers shipping from our Pentagon City warehouse. Those bikes helped complete the container we were shipping to Village Bicycle Project in Ghana last December.

Then came the bigger task. Pittsburgh. We've known for a while now we needed a plan to close down our Pittsburgh warehouse. But we also knew there were close to 200 bikes there thanks to a very successful Eagle Project back in 2015. Moving them would be no easy task.

To say Zak jumped at the idea might sound exaggerated, but none the less, true. After spending some time in Bali and Egypt, Zak arrived home to Connecticut only to leave two days later en-route to our warehouse in Pennsylvania. Once there, this is what he found, a basement full of bikes.

So after a six hour drive to Pittsburgh, Zak immediately got to work loading the rented U-Haul that awaited him. Ahh, but if only it were that easy. The bikes were in the basement and Zak was by himself. With the help of a very well used elevator, Zak brought all those bikes to the surface a handful at a time.

He then had to put some final prep work into some of the bikes so that all 142 would fit on the truck. Finally, he loaded the truck and drove to DC. Again to recap, jetlagged and tired, Zak drove six hours to Pittsburgh. Once there he spent the next five hours moving and prepping bikes by himself. Then hemade an overnight trip driving the final leg to Virginia to deliver this load to our storage area at Bonzai Sports.

These bikes will make our next shipment possible at the beginning of March. We hope at that time to be settled into our new permanent home...details coming soon!....

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Heart of Rebuilding a Hub

Last summer we watched helplessly as our neighbors to the north in Ellicott City Maryland suffered a devastating blow when a surprise storm overtook the town. This wasn't a hurricane or tornado we were bracing for, it was a severe rain storm that wasn't expected to bring the damage it did.

Water swelled from below and ran from above and collected at the bottom of the hill taking with it everything in its path. It tore away streets and sidewalks, carried away cars like small boats, destroyed homes and businesses, leaving behind mud and devastation. Out of this razed town rose a stronger community.

Family and friends took in displaced residents. The Governor came and promised to fix the streets, loans were issued. Strangers came together to help clean and rebuild buildings and bring back to life the heart of this historical town that relies on small business to thrive. It is still a work in progress, but if you visit Ellicott City that is exactly what you will find, progress, and a heart of platinum.

Imagine losing your home, your business, everything you own. Imagine no one coming to your aid. Imagine relocating to an unknown place, where you don't speak the language, have no family or friends- just you, your family and a few possessions you grabbed that now fit in the trunk of a car.

This isn't a life most people would hope for or dream about, but it has become a reality for millions of Syrians forced to leave the rubble of what was once their home. On a TV screen we've seen their towns reduced to a pile of rocks. We've seen the shock and disbelief on their troubled faces. We argue about how to help, IF we should help, whether we should open our doors or close our borders. What many of us in America fail to see is a human in crisis.

Adham, Maher, and Munir with Harvey and Keith
Maryland has taken in about 400 Syrian refugees in 2016. Virginia, less. They come with a suitcase full of clothes, a family to care for, and no job, no house, no idea what to do next.

American host families stepped up and opened their homes, welcoming the displaced families into their own. One host family was shocked to find how much luggage came with the Syrian family they were taking in. "We expected them to arrive with nothing, but there were so many suitcases in the trunk." When they opened their luggage they not only found clothes but also food. The realization hit of what it must be like to relocate to a foreign country not knowing how you were going to feed your family.

Thanks to the generosity and support of these American families, the newly arriving Syrians had a safe place to call home, if only temporary. Enter in Langley Hill Friends Meeting who collectively decided they also needed to help. The Friends community helped them find jobs, get their kids enrolled in school, apply for a drivers license. Eventually they would find homes of their own.

But for many refugees settled all over the US transportation remains a problem. Buying a car is often out of reach for many Syrians for months after arriving in the States. This limits the type of jobs they can apply for depending on where they live and the means they have to commute. Many refugees often wind up walking to work and to run family errands.

Najla Drooby, of Langley Hill, recognized this early and approached Bikes for the World. She also identified a young man named Munir who had some bike mechanic skills and asked if he could join us in the warehouse. After just one week in the warehouse, Munir earned a couple bikes and spare parts for fellow refugees to use for work. He returned the following week, with friends.

Nathan, one of our veteran volunteer mechanics worked with Munir and Maher showing them some of the tricks of the trade. They were unfamiliar with some of the specialized bike tools unavailable to them back home. Nathan reported that communication proved to be no barrier when dealing with tools and's a universal, understood language. Adham spent most of his time assisting Keith loading the containers helping other people around the world.

This Syrian crew joined us in our last days at Pentagon City helping us load containers, prepare bikes and parts to ship overseas and also earned bikes to take home, something we don't normally allow at Bikes for the World. But this was a unique situation. This cause aligned with our mission. We identified some road bikes that are harder to place in our rural projects around the world and put them to good use here in our backyard. It was a small resource we could spare that had a huge impact in our community.

Our bikes were helping these new Maryland families go to work, the library, and run errands. The goal was to help them succeed and to do that be independent again. We hoped to help these families return to the self-sufficient life many of them left behind.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Featured Volunteer: Paul Keefer

"We're gaining momentum, but it's taking more time than I thought," Paul Keefer.

Seriously, keep your eyes on this guy. And don't listen to what he says...he's got a tailwind pushing him with a hurricane force.

Paul Keefer is behind our Bikes for the World South Carolina effort and he's a hard guy to stop or slow. He joined forces with us in the fall of 2015 and they are already gearing up to ship a container from his location possibly next month.

Let's break it down: This first thing Paul did was find Premier Logistics who generously donated warehouse space for our bikes. Then he armed himself with BfW facts and photos and started looking for collection managers to fill it with bikes. 

We helped jump start is effort by connecting him to one of our committed partners in North Carolina, Cape Fear Academy. Teacher, Becky Copenhaver has engaged her students in this project over the last few years and in 2015 she knocked our socks off, putting 121 bikes in Paul's hands.

Paul helped orient the managers running collections, he drove trucks, delivered supplies, loaded and unloaded bikes. Essentially he became the 'Keith Oberg' of the Carolinas. Next came the University of Coastal Carolina. And more bikes.

Then earlier this year in came an email from The Peak Church in NC. They wanted to hold a bike collection. We scratched our heads regarding logistics and kicked it to Paul. He didn't hesitate- YEAH, I GOT THIS!

It was quite a haul from Apex NC to Charleston SC...nearly 300 miles ONE WAY to be exact. But that effort brought in another 100 bikes.

Before we knew it Paul was sitting on half a container of bikes; things were shaping up nicely in the Carolinas. We could see a shipment coming from there early in 2017...and it's about to happen!

Paul and Michael Gregg

Paul switched gears and started doing outreach to grow the Bikes for the World name in the area. He started taking financial donations. He reached out to scouts, schools, and churches...looking for volunteers and collection locations.

The Carolina Youth Development Center stepped up and held the first event, netting a few bikes for the pile. Paul then tabled an event at North Charleston Community Days to help spread awareness for BfW and what we do.

The big break came when BfW put Paul in touch with United Methodist Church youth leaders.  Working with George Howle and Chris Lynch, Paul started brainstorming on how to bring together 12 regions on this collective effort to deliver bikes around the world.

And this Christmas, Union United Methodist Church in Irmo, SC was the first one to deliver. 26 brand new bikes to be exact! They set out with a goal to collect 13 bikes for Bikes for the World and Union UM came together and doubled it!

Paul now estimates about 300 bikes in the Hanahan warehouse. And forced us to address the need to load a shipment early in February (which we were eager to do given the warmer temperatures south)

The United Methodist goal is to collect 1200 bikes total; 100 from each region. Three of the regions are already planning collections with Paul; and he's got one on the calendar for April.

Couple that with the local bike shops he's working with and a recent connection with Tom Lawrence who offered another 300 bikes from his 20 year passion of collecting a repairing bikes and it's all coming together fast. Exactly like we thought. Yeah, he's got this.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Music Makes The World Go Round

“Music is the strongest form of magic,” Marilyn Manson. Bono says it like this, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” No matter your preference in music, band, or quote the message is the same. And no single act says it better than the collaboration between Canadian musicians from the band Unsung and the Orchestra from Regional Lead School of the Arts (RLSAA).

Music Makes The World A Better Place.

On December 21st students from the Philippines took the stage with students from Canada in a tribute concert affectionately named Musikleta. This effort was the brainchild of Christine Adela White, a Filipino-Canadian music director overseeing CW Music

Christine is also an avid cyclist and on a visit to the Philippines she met up with Bikes for the Philippines Director Joel Uichico who invited her to a graduation ceremony where some of our recent bike beneficiaries were being honored. She noticed that not many graduates were crossing the stage. Joel told her many students risked dropping out due to family financial burdens coupled with long commutes to walk to school. 

But Joel had a solution: bikes. And Christine wanted to help. She took all this back with her to Canada and introduced this struggle to her young music students, many of whom are also Filipino. They too wanted to help. So they did what they do best, played tunes.

They started doing benefit concerts to help the students Christine met during her visit to the Philippines. That's when Christine got the idea to do a collaborative concert with the students at RLSAA.

Why not just raise funds at home? Well they did. When the young Canadian musicians learned that the orchestra members they would be playing with didn't have money for fresh strings, they hit the stage. They held a benefit concert at a local restaurant to help buy new strings for their instruments.

"The orchestra has been using the same strings for 10 years. Some kids even used fishing line to practice." So new strings were purchased and delivered to the RSLAA orchestra members. "Their reaction to hearing the new sound of their strings was absolutely priceless."

And Christine wanted her students to see that joy for themselves. "For kids to actually be here (in the Philippines) to witness where their efforts are going, who is benefiting from it? It's gonna open their eyes."

"It feels good when you help somebody especially when you help them to get better education," Max , 12 year old guitarist for Unsung.

"Most importantly I'm looking forward to seeing all the smiles on the kids faces because they deserve these bikes," Aldrin, lead singer of the group.

The main objective of the concert was to raise funds for the bike program, but it became apparent early in the planning that both groups wanted to share this musical gift with everyone, especially students. They implemented a ticket purchasing program which would provide free tickets to school kids with the purchase of bulk ticket sales. 

“In the end, the purpose of raising funds for the foundation played second fiddle to sharing this concert performed by children for children. We had public and high school children watching as well as a group from an orphanage,” Joel Uichico, Director of Bikes for the Philippines.

The money raised during the benefit concert will go to help bike coordinators increase their impact on the program. The geographic challenges of operating a program in a country comprised of smaller islands with limited internet has been a consistent obstacle, but not one insurmountable.

Director Joel Uichico has added bike coordinators in the schools to monitor the bike beneficiaries who are also trained in safety, maintenance, and safe riding skills as part of the program. His goal is to supply phones to the coordinators for better communication and to also provide a travel stipend so they can visit other school programs to learn best operational practices.

Currently Bikes for the Philippines has donated bikes to 18 school districts on all three larger regions of the Philippines. Four schools remain actively involved in the Bikes for Education project. RSLAA, Concepcion Integrated School, Fatima, and Lourdes make up those four school districts and support hundreds of students enrolled in the program struggling to stay in school and graduate.