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Working Bikes Cooperative: Wheelin’ and Dealin’

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by Paula Levin

We ride our bikes for leisure, or transportation, or exercise, or the environment, or to feel like kids again. For some of us, though, it is not enough to simply ride.

The Working Bikes Cooperative’s mission is to empower communities by engaging in activities that promote environmentalism, public health, and human equality. Working Bikes recovers landfill-bound bicycles, repairs them to working condition, and sells them to Chicagoans at a low cost in order to fund shipments of bicycles and bike parts to developing countries. We have shipped over 4000 bikes to countries in Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean, including Ghana, Angola, Tanzania, Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Cuba. We have also shipped solar ovens, wheel chairs and other medical equipment.

Six months ago, we had the pleasure of meeting Mario Juarez, the Director of our partner group, Maya Pedal. Maya Pedal is a non-governmental organization in San Andres Itzapa, Guatemala, that recycles used bicycles to build pedal-powered machines, bicim’quinas, which support and help facilitate the work of small-scale, self-sustainable projects in order to contribute to the conservation of the environment, the health of the Guatemalan people, and the productivity of the local economy. It was a cold day in December, particularly for a man coming from a place where it was summertime, not the dead of winter. Mario had gone with Lee Ravenscroft, the founder of Working Bikes Cooperative, and other volunteers to the scrap yard that morning to negotiate with junkeros to buy old bikes that would otherwise be melted down into scrapmetal, and bring them back to the Working Bikes warehouse to fix up and sell or ship.

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure

As can be expected, there was talk of the weather. When we oohed and ahhed at Mario’s ability to brave the cold while some of us longtime Chicagoans couldn’t bring ourselves to wake up so early in the morning, let alone spend hours at a time outdoors, Mario shrugged, as if to say, “no big deal.” He grew very animated, though, when he described that morning to us and touched upon something that truly is a big deal: ” I can’t believe what you throw away!” he told us. He’s right. There is so much waste. And this goes beyond the realm of bicycles. On March 19, Working Bikes teamed up with Caribbean Medical Transport to pack a container of bikes and medical equipment bound for Cuba. Caribbean Medical Transport is a non-profit and non-political humanitarian organization that sends medicine and medical equipment to Cuba. Essentially, they are the Working Bikes of the medical world·they see a good thing going to waste, and they find a way around it. One of their volunteers explained to me that a great deal of hospital equipment lasts for about 20 years, but hospitals throw out the machinery after only 7 years or so because it is no longer insured. Caribbean Medical Transport has made arrangements with many hospitals to collect their medical equipment rather than permit it to be thrown away.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

In a recent email to the Working Bikes listserv which seems equally relevant to groups like Caribbean Medical Transport, Brandon Zagorski, a seasoned volunteer, reminded other volunteers of one of the main reasons why we do what we do: We (the U.S.) have the resources, but not the time, and they (our international partners) have the time, but not the resources. Johnny Payphone and SAIC student Danny Danger, Working Bikes volunteers who spent approximately 6 months each at our partner site in Patriensa, Ghana, setting up bike mechanics training programs and building cargo bikes, echoed that sentiment when they came back with the suggestion that we send anything and everything, because “they’ll use it all.” After explaining how he and the Ghanians with whom he worked once completed a large government order of cargo bikes by rigging a moped’s engine to a defunct grinder, Danny summed up his many extraordinary experiences of overcoming obstacles by telling us, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

While the majority of our bikes are donated to projects in developing countries, we also provide bicycles to a number of programs in Chicago. For instance, Working Bikes’ volunteer, Alex Wilson, runs Earn-a-Bike programs for Chicago youths. Students learn bicycle safety and mechanics, explore environmental issues, and complete the program with a bike that they reconditioned themselves, along with a whole new set of skills and a sense of independence and self-confidence. In addition, Alex Wilson recently opened West Town Bikes ( www.westtownbikes.org ), a new community bicycle workshop space. Its primary function is to be used as learning space to teach bicycle maintenance and repair to members of the community. WTB will also be used as a creative workspace for special bicycle building, utilitarian human powered design, kinetic art, advocacy projects and all sorts of constructive creation.

Another volunteer, Stephan Wagner, runs Aspire to Inspire (www.aspiretoinspire.org ), a non-profit organization whose mission is to work towards a healthy, sustainable, and responsible global community by executing challenging team projects that require great courage, endurance, and will power in an environment free of limitations based on age, gender, race, handicaps, or nationality. In June of 2006, an international team of 25 cyclists, including Stephan, will embark on the Continental Pedal, a yearlong journey across the globe to raise money for nine separate charities. Some of the participants will ride Working Bikes’ bikes on their expedition. As one volunteer remarked at the last WBC meeting: Riding bikes from the trash around the world? Sweet!

There are too many other dedicated volunteers to name, but all of their work is invaluable to Working Bikes’ mission. I have often wondered how so many of us find the time to work so hard on all the various projects the Cooperative undertakes. I recently found the answer. Steve Marsala, a frequent volunteer as well as the unofficial Master of Calm and Reason, told me: time keeps ticking, it’s hearts that stop.

We find the time because we have the passion. For some of us, it is not enough just to ride.

May 2005

West Town Bikes.org
Aspire to Inspire.org
Working Bikes.org

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