Surplus bikes find new life in developing countries
Published: Sunday, September 23, 2007
By Tim Johnson
Free Press Staff Writer
An unwanted bike cluttering up a Vermont garage can have a useful new life -- even a transformative one -- in El Salvador, Ghana, or other developing countries.
That's the premise of Pedals for Progress, a national program started by returned Peace Corps volunteers that ships surplus bicycles overseas and promotes bike-repair enterprises and training to maintain them. Working with partner organizations in each recipient country, Pedals bills itself as an economic-development organization, not just a charity.
Saturday marked the 10th autumnal Pedals collection in Chittenden County. Business was brisk during the 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. event in the parking lot of the Lake Champlain Chocolates warehouse on Pine Street. Sixty-eight bikes, about one a minute, were donated in the first hour. Donors were asked to pay $10 per bike to cover a portion of the shipping costs, estimated at $30 per bike on average.
About two dozen volunteers -- students, bike mechanics, activists and Peace Corps alumni -- greeted the donors and took care of the merchandise. They passed out tax-deduction receipts, prepared the bikes for storage and packed them in a 53-foot container, donated by the local FedEx office, that will be trucked free-of-charge to a port in New Jersey.
Dismantling the donations was Mark Rowell, who manages a similar bike project in Burlington's Old North End. Bike Recycle Vermont, which operates in the basement of the Good News Garage on North Winooski Avenue, accepts donations, fixes them up, and gives them to people who otherwise couldn't afford them. It has distributed 2,000 bikes in the last three years.
Saturday morning, Rowell was working on the bikes headed overseas, removing the pedals and rotating the handle bars to make optimal use of the shipping space. Across the lot, Peace Corps veterans Bob Thompson and Jose Torres were loading the trailer.
Thompson volunteered in Kenya, Torres in Ghana. They had both seen the value of bicycles first hand. Pedals for Progress shipped 1,442 bikes to Ghana in 2006-07, and 403 to Kenya in 2003, according to the organization's Web site.
"Bikes are how people get around there," Thompson said. "We look at it as a form of recreation. There, it's a vital form of transportation. It frees up doctors so they can make more appointments, literacy teachers so they can see more students."
"A lot of children live too far from villages, and bikes allow them the opportunity to get to school," Torres said.
Then there's the surge in income a bike can bring for a worker. "It's unbelievable how much people can carry on their bikes -- sugarcane, huge gunny sacks of charcoal," Torres recalled.
Pat Goyne of St. Albans, who volunteered in the Republic of Kiribati, a group of island in the Pacific, remembers that bikes there were in short supply. She had one, though -- a bike is standard issue for many Peace Corps volunteers.
"We had a family of five that shared one bike," she said. "They'd come knocking on my hut, 'Can we borrow your bike?' Or I'd see a girl riding to church on a bike, with one brother on her shoulders and another brother riding on this part," she said, pointing to the rear wheel of a donated bike.
Cherita Swearingen, who just moved to Burlington, was among the volunteers. She said she spent her first six years in Daouada, Algeria, where there were no buses, no roads even, and walked 10 miles to school one way. "I've been on the other end," she said. "I lived in the middle of nowhere. I wish someone had given me a bike, even if I had to work for it."
Bob Guthrie of Burlington donated three bikes -- two of which his kids had outgrown. "It's the right thing to do," he said. "It's a neat program."
Ray Mainer of Hinesburg brought four. "Got to make room in the garage," he said.
One of his bikes was the Vermont program's 2,000th, according Joanne Heidkamp, who has been volunteering at Pedals collections since the first one in 1998. A volunteer took Mainer's picture.
Previously, the biggest local collection brought in 250 bikes, Heidkamp said. At 1 p.m., with dozens of bikes still waiting to be loaded, Heidkamp announced the day's take: 276, a record.
Contact Tim Johnson at 660-1808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more, go to the Pedals for Progress Web site: http://www.p4p.org/, or call Joanne Heidkamp at 660-0971.