For the last 11 years, a small group of people has been working hard to keep bikes out of the dumps in Chicago, and instead, put them into the hands of new owners who can benefit exceedingly from something often cast aside as disposable. We were able to meet with the founder, Lee Ravenscroft, to hear about this fabulous project. He is a tall and lanky, kind hearted man who immediately struck us as unpretentious and nonchalant. To him it just seemed like no big deal to be running a nonprofit organization that happens to be improving peoples lives locally and in several other countries. He started Working Bikes Cooperative to not only lessen the waste of our society, but more to offer the life changing gift of a bicycle to impoverished people who otherwise would not have this great resource. A bicycle to many of us may just be something we use for exercise or to occasionally get around when we’d rather not use our cars, or maybe even to commute to school or work. But for many others, in countries where owning a car is a luxury far beyond reach for the majority of people, a bicycle can make the difference of having an income at all. It can make a difference in productivity because it enables people to carry much greater amounts of all sorts of things. It can mean more water gets to a group of people. And a bicycle can even be the deciding factor between life and death for those living in villages many miles from the nearest clinic. Bikes can be used for transportation, as “ambulances”, and even to generate energy for a water pump or light bulb. What an amazing tool a bicycle can be. And yet, we throw out thousands across the nation each year. Luckily, Working Bikes Co-op is not alone in this effort of rescuing bikes, fixing them up, reselling them and/or shipping them out by the hundreds to underdeveloped nations. Bikes Not Bombs and Bikes for the World are a couple of other awesome organizations doing similar work.
One of the rules at Working Bikes is that you can’t work on your own bike, you gotta work on someone else’s. I appreciate how this gets us out of our “me focused” thinking and encourages serving others. They use their facilities to teach a bit about bike maintenance and repair, restore the donated and retrieved bikes, and organize the 40 foot crate shipments to countries in South America and Africa. They also have a fantastic educational area where kids come on fieldtrips from schools in the neighborhood to watch and experience how bikes can make a light turn on or a record player play music or a pipe pump water into a barrel! We got to jam to some James Brown while Lee cycled to his hearts content.
Working Bikes has the only permit to send bikes to Cuba. Upon reception of the crate, the bikes are dispensed to the 500 poorest Cuban families, free of cost. In most of the other countries the bikes donated will be received and then worked on locally. The bikes are usually sold for a low cost so that they are valued even more because they have been purchased by hard earned money. It costs Working Bikes about $15 a bike to ship them to Africa and South America, so to offset shipping costs and the admin fees of running the organization, they sell hundreds of restored bikes every month from their warehouse showroom. It’s open for business twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, but volunteers and staff are there each day working hard on bike repairs. We were very impressed with the huge selection and great prices. We had never seen so many bikes in our lives! Piles and piles of bikes everywhere they could be stored, just waiting to be fixed up to sell or ship out. Working Bikes sends out over 5,000 bikes each year. They give many away to local Chicago charities as well.
Why bikes? Because of the availability and the massive difference in can make in each recipient’s life. Working Bikes also sends sewing machines and wheelchairs on their shipments whenever possible. When they don’t have a crate filled and headed out, they look for opportunities to add a few bikes here and there to other shipments of shoes and things going to underdeveloped nations. They partner with existing organizations in the various countries who receive the crates and disperse the bikes, and then share feedback about how the bikes are making a difference, with their friends at Working Bikes. If you have ever spent much time overseas or lived in a poor country, you probably witnessed the great impact that a simple bicycle can have in someone’s life. This is why we are such huge fans of organizations like Working Bikes. If you have an interest in serving people in this way, you can find more info on their website workingbikes.org