Pedaling toward prosperity
A few years ago, Jorge Romero walked his daughter, Mariangel, to school every morning, and every afternoon he accompanied her home. She was 13 at the time, and the 2.5-mile trek in Galapa, a town on the outskirts of Barranquilla, Colombia, was "too dangerous for a girl to walk on her own," Romero explains. The family couldn't afford other means of transportation. But walking his daughter to school meant that Romero, a day laborer, missed out on getting in the labor queue early enough to grab opportunities to work.
Like many families in Galapa, the Romeros are refugees from Venezuela who depleted their savings making the journey. Nine family members share a simple two-bedroom home. The family sleeps in one bedroom, reserving the other to store their few prized possessions — including the bicycle Mariangel received from World Bicycle Relief that gave her a new way to get to school. The family's hopes now rest on Mariangel to complete her education, thrive, and help support them. As one relative put it, that bicycle is a godsend.
World Bicycle Relief, a Chicago-based nonprofit started in 2005, has given away more than 684,000 bicycles in 21 countries, most of them in Africa. "Bicycles are a really overlooked tool for people to access opportunities," CEO Dave Neiswander says via a video call from his field office in Zambia. "There's a billion people that are challenged to find reliable transportation. Bicycles are a very efficient way for them to help themselves, which is what intrigued me from the beginning."
WBR is one of several organizations that Rotary clubs are working with to collect and distribute donated bicycles to children around the world. "This is one of my favorite projects of the year," Mary Lou Byrne, president of the Rotary Club of Pasadena, California, says about her group's bike project. "Kids and bikes just belong together, and it is so thrilling to be able to help make that magic happen."
Access to a reliable bicycle helps families overcome barriers to education and other opportunities. Where Mariangel is from, for instance, many girls must complete chores and care for younger siblings before making the long trek to school. "The problem is they arrive at school late and with no homework done because they are tired," explains Mariela Madrid, the head teacher at Mariangel's school. With a bicycle, they can save time and arrive at school safely with more energy and focus.
"In development, we talk about last-mile supply chain," Neiswander says. "How do you get vaccines out? How do you distribute mosquito nets? How do you actually empower people to reach those distances? Especially in girls' education, where girls are walking 5 or 10 miles to get to school, having a bicycle can be a game-changer, and that really is a key to break the cycles of poverty and disease in developing regions around the world."
For members of the Rotary Club of Traverse Bay Sunrise, Michigan, service projects to build schools led to their involvement with bicycles. From 2016 to 2019, the club teamed with the Warm Hearts Foundation, a Michigan-based nonprofit that does humanitarian work in eastern Africa, to build classroom blocks at three schools in Malawi.
Helping build schools was the perfect project for Kip Nickel, a retired sales executive in Traverse City who had worked for global manufacturing corporations and enjoyed living in various countries over the years. He now serves on the global service committee of the Traverse Bay Sunrise club. He recalls that when the Rotary members started building the Malawi schools, they asked students, families, and teachers what they needed most. "We got a list that included textbooks, more classrooms, and computers, but one thing that kept coming up again and again was the need for transportation," Nickel says. "Some of the students were walking up to 6 miles, sometimes leaving their house in the dark before sunrise and getting home in the dark of evening."
The Rotary club first purchased 50 bicycles for students locally in Malawi in 2019 as a test run but had doubts they would hold up. It's the same dilemma WBR founders had a decade earlier: What good does it do to purchase bicycles that fall apart so easily?
WBR was established as an emergency response to provide transportation in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Its next project, in Zambia, addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis by providing bicycles to health workers and vulnerable households. Shortly after WBR arrived in Africa, Neiswander and his team realized that sturdy bikes that withstood the rugged dirt roads were hard to find there. "When we put them through our testing protocols, they just fell apart, pedals snapped off, the brakes never worked," he remembers with a laugh. "We were like, whoa, we can't in good conscience give 23,000 bicycles to health care workers in an HIV/AIDS program if the bicycles don't serve their needs."
So WBR's engineers designed a sturdy all-terrain bike that they call the Buffalo Bicycle. It weighs 50 pounds and can carry up to 220 pounds, and it's built for long distances on bumpy terrain. It rarely breaks down, features reliable all-weather coaster brakes, and can easily be repaired. Since introducing the bike to the countries where it works, WBR has trained more than 2,800 mechanics who serve their local communities.
After conducting some research, members of Nickel's club discussed their options: They could continue to buy cheaper bicycles on the local market, or they could invest in the sturdy Buffalo bikes for about $170 apiece. "We all agreed to make the additional investment and get the better-quality bikes," Nickel says. The Traverse Bay Sunrise club partnered with the nearby Rotary Club of Elk Rapids to raise more than $30,000, while a grant from District 6290 provided another $10,000. The money allowed the clubs to buy 220 Buffalo bikes from WBR in 2021.
The Michigan clubs also teamed up with the Rotary Club of Limbe, Malawi, the Warm Hearts Foundation, and Norte Cycling of Traverse City. They donate the bicycles directly to four secondary schools, which decide who needs them most based on how far the students travel, their need for transportation, and their gender, because it can be more dangerous for girls to walk long distances. Families agree to pay the equivalent of about $6 per year to cover maintenance and repairs. A WBR repair technician services the Buffalo Bicycles at the four schools and teaches students how to make small repairs themselves; the organization also provides toolkits and spare parts.
When students graduate the bikes are passed on to the next generation of students. "Our idea is that this could be perpetual," Nickel says. "We take care of the bikes so they can last years, maybe 10 years or longer."
Pandemic restrictions prevented the U.S. Rotary members from traveling to Malawi when the project began. But World Bicycle Relief assembled the bicycles in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, and Warm Hearts Foundation helped distribute them. Teachers reported back that attendance and grades improved, as did student behavior. Students are even transferring to the schools, drawn by the chance to receive a bicycle.
In fall 2022, seven Rotarians, including Nickel, visited the four Malawi schools and met the students. "They all love their bicycles and say they are making it possible to attend but also that their grades and interest in school increased," Nickel says.
His most memorable discussion, he says, was with Fostino, a student at Nansenga Community Day Secondary School in rural Mangochi district. The boy had been walking two to three hours to school and was failing because he was often absent, late, and exhausted. "Now that I have my bicycle, I can get to school in 30 or 40 minutes, and I'm on time, even early," the boy told Nickel. "And I am doing so well in school that now I am a genius in class!" Fostino wants to go to college to study finance.
Another student, Gertrude, used to leave her home well before 5 a.m. to walk the 6 miles to school. "I love my bicycle," she told Nickel. "I can also give a friend a ride to school on the rear carrier; they love it too." In fact, nearly all the students they met said they are giving another student a ride to school, doubling their bikes' impact.
The Traverse Bay Sunrise club's next project is to get bicycles for the teachers. "They are having a hard time reaching the schools as well, and they see the students overtake them on the dirt roads," Nickel says. The club partnered with the Rotary Club of Cadillac, Michigan, and secured another district grant to get this project started. The teachers will pay for their bikes in payments equivalent to $8 per month over two or three years.
Studies in Africa have shown that a bicycle can increase a family's income. The average pay for a teacher in Malawi is less than $150 a month, and when the teachers have paid off their bikes, Nickel hopes to invest that money in additional bikes for students. His club also wants to extend the project to additional schools. "Malawi is a long-term commitment for the club," he says.
Requests for bicycles also come up frequently in the U.S. when Rotary clubs work with families in need. For several years, Rotary clubs in Pasadena, San Marino, and Altadena, California, worked with the Salvation Army to distribute bicycles to families. After receiving the bikes from the manufacturer Huffy at cost, the clubs gave away more than 1,200 bikes, along with helmets and locks, from 2015 through 2020. "The biggest day for us was always the assembly day," says Colleen Carey, a member of the Pasadena club who was co-chair of the project. "We needed at least 50 people to put the bikes together, and between the clubs, we usually managed to come up with enough manpower. The lines of parents stretched around the block. The smiles and the excitement of the children made it worthwhile. Also, a bike gives them freedom and exercise."
Some Rotary members even found their way to their local clubs through bicycle programs. Among them was Kathryn Armstrong, an operations director in Chicago. She learned about a volunteer event at a Chicago nonprofit called Working Bikes that ships bikes overseas, primarily to countries in Central America and Africa, including Malawi. She showed up with her husband and wondered why almost everybody at the event was a Rotary member. The group spent that cold, rainy morning putting donated bikes together for shipment. Armstrong enjoyed the experience so much that she became a Rotary member and serves as president-elect of the Rotary Club of Chicago Cosmopolitan. She has not missed a Working Bikes volunteer day since.
"This is what I believe in and what Rotary stands for: service, empowerment, and self-determination. By getting somebody a bike, it helps them get around," Armstrong says. "It's such a useful tool that can serve them for a really long time."
Nickel shares a similar sentiment. "The leverage you gain through the association with Rotary is invaluable," he says. "I mean, our club has about 70 people, and these 70 people implemented a $45,000 bicycle project with just our connections through the club, and we'll do it again. It really feels like you're making a big difference. It's very rewarding, and that's an important message."
In Colombia, Mariangel Romero and her family are making big plans. "We look forward to enjoying a different way of life," she says. "My dream is to go to the United States, study music, dance, and guitar. Since I was little, I have loved singing. I still sing during church and hope to sing in public one day." And the benefits of having a bike extend beyond just Mariangel and her education. Her father, Jorge, says: "Now, with the bicycle, she is able to cycle on her own, and I can use the morning hours to find a job and work. We believe in her. She will make it."
This story originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.