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!....