Local Co-Op Donates Bikes, Enriches LivesAug 29, 2011 ● By Carrie Jackson
Some people might not expect schoolchildren in Uganda, emergency technicians in Haiti or farmers in Panama to be riding through the streets and fields on gently used bicycles Chicagoans find in their basements and garages, but that’s exactly what many of them are doing, thanks to Working Bikes Cooperative (WBC). Based in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the not-for-profit organization’s mission is to repair unused or unwanted bikes and give them to people who could benefit. It is primarily run by a group of dedicated volunteers who help collect, repair and ship the bikes, and spread the word about WBC through local events and outreach programs.
Raul Gonzalez joined WBC five years ago and now serves as general manager. In the beginning, he would send teams out into the neighborhoods to pick up discarded bikes from dumpsters and trash piles. “We found bikes being unused, discarded, wasted and destroyed,” says Gonzalez. “We had to go out and stop the scrappers from throwing them in the scrap yard.” Now, they get most of their bikes from organized collections, designated drop off locations and alliances with local bike shops. “Twenty-one million bikes are sold new a year, and especially with gas prices continuing to rise, people are looking for a more natural alternative for getting from Point A to Point B,” Gonzalez says.
WBC doesn’t want people to get rid of bikes that they are using. They ultimately are cycling advocates and would love for everybody to be on one and participating in the biking culture. “Being on a bike makes you immediately more connected to your environment,” says Gonzalez. To fund the cost of shipping and operations, they maintain a storefront next to their headquarters that sells better-quality recycled bikes–most under $100–to the general public. The store is primarily staffed and operated by volunteers, some who have been with WBC since their start 11 years ago.
“Instead of getting rid of a perfectly good bike, why wouldn’t you want to put it in the hands of somebody who otherwise wouldn’t have one?”
Phil Kaplan started volunteering with WBC two years ago, after picking up a brochure about them at an event in Highland Park. He had just retired from a 30-year career with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the practicality of the program struck him on a basic level. “One of the first environmental concepts is that you don’t throw stuff away,” says Kaplan. “Instead of getting rid of a perfectly good bike, why wouldn’t you want to put it in the hands of somebody who otherwise wouldn’t have one?” He decided to participate in a shipping party, an event where WBC volunteers and staff pack the donated bikes into a 40-foot-long semi trailer to be shipped. With careful maneuvering, they typically get 500 bikes into each shipping container, which is then trucked, transported by freight train to the coast and loaded onto a cargo ship.
The bikes at Kaplan’s first shipping party were destined for Arusha, a city in Tanzania that he had recently visited, and that immediately personalized his experience. “I felt great about it,” remembers Kaplan. “Raul was so nice, and everybody was so appreciative—it was easy to come back.” Now, Kaplan goes down to the shop at least once a week to do volunteer mechanic work on bikes that are going to be either shipped or sold.
Gonzalez says some people ask why they ship the bikes to other countries when there are plenty of Americans who could use them. Quite simply, it’s a matter of economics. “The cost of labor here is so much higher,” he says. “People bring in their old bikes to a shop and they’re looking at an $85 tune-up; many people would rather spend a little more and get a new bike. However, in Panama, that’s a $5 tune-up.”
The recipients are profoundly thankful. Having a bike can mean a child has access to a school that’s miles away, an artisan can sell her crafts in a market several towns away or a farmer can transport his produce more efficiently. Riding a bike greatly reduces and almost eliminates transportation costs for most people. “A farmer who rides a horse has to buy feed, but with a bike, you’re just burning your own calories, instead of fossil fuel,” says Gonzalez. Some recipients even use parts of the bikes for creative and practical purposes. In Guatemala, for example, people power their cell phones and blenders with bicycle pedals and use the chains to make tools.
Outreach projects for September include a bike collection at the Park District of Highland Park’s Autumn Fest, September 23, at Heller Nature Center (see sidebar). Kaplan, who is heading up the Heller Autumn Fest, says he loves being a part of many different facets of the organization. “First and foremost, I am a biker and just enjoy the camaraderie—the people here are very socially conscious,” he says. “I like being involved in the mechanical, outreach, environmental and social aspects, and just representing WBC. But the best part is putting these donations in the hands of people who otherwise would never have a bike.”
Location: 2434 S. Western Ave., Chicago 60608. Contact: call 773-847-5440 or visit WorkingBikes.org for a complete list of drop-off locations, events, store hours and services.
Carrie Jackson is a freelance writer and blogger based in Evanston, IL. Visit her at SpeakingOfCare.blogspot.com.