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Biking Culture

Boise nonprofits join to take bikes to Africa

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In a place like Sierra Leone, where transportation is usually a matter of putting one foot in front of another, a bicycle means freedom, convenience and, sometimes, status.

That's why three Idaho-based nonprofits have partnered to bring bikes and other supplies to communities in need of a little help. Boise-based Village Hope and the Boise Bike Project have joined with Moscow's Village Bicycle Project to distribute 40 bikes in rural areas of the African nation.

But the bikes are just a small part of a much larger goal.

"We're trying to help people escape poverty," said Village Hope founder Jonathan Bart. "[We're trying to help] poor rural communities achieve sustainable improvement in health, education and economic security. It's a broad community development pool."

The first step in that development is to improve educational opportunities, and part of that is to bolster the position of area teachers, many of whom are unpaid. That's why all 40 bikes will be given to teachers at six schools scattered across a rural section of Sierra Leone.

"It's a way to help them out but also elevate their stature within the community," Bart said.

The bikes will be just part of a larger shipment of supplies—including school supplies, a Toyota Landcruiser and a tractor—which Bart said will be arriving in Africa at the end of this year. It's a huge accomplishment for a nonprofit started less than one year ago.

Bart and his wife, Susan Earnst, were looking for some sort of humanitarian cause to join after he retired from a career as a biologist for the United States Geological Survey. As they searched for an opportunity that would allow them on-the-ground, person-to-person contact, Bart read Giving, by former President Bill Clinton. The book outlined some of the world's successful humanitarian efforts. Among them was a New York City teacher who began shipping containers full of school supplies to Africa.

Inspired, Bart contacted the teacher, who was in turn contacted by someone in Sierra Leone, asking if he would expand his program. Instead, he put them in contact with Bart, who jumped at the idea and founded his own nonprofit.

Thanks to financial backing and quick response from volunteers, Bart has secured a plethora of donations, as well as a full-time employee in Sierra Leone. He visited the country for the first time in February, getting to know the people and their circumstances.

Already, Village Hope has created committees focused on each of the six primary schools the organization is working with and has begun developing a model of how the group will offer encouragement, technical advice and start-up capital for income-generating activities with a focus on agriculture.

"They're definitely excited," Bart said of the reaction of the residents in the villages the group is focusing on. "Those people just have so little when someone comes in and wants to work with them, they're just so thrilled."

In fact, Bart said he and other volunteers spent a lot of time actually trying to dampen the expectations of eager villagers.

"It's easy for them [to be] very unrealistic about what we can do for them," he said. "We can only promise to try hard."

Bart reached out to the experts when it came to rounding up the much needed bikes and learning the ins and outs of shipping goods overseas. He first contacted Moscow-based Village Bicycle Project, an organization founded by Dave Peckham in 2000, to help bring affordable transportation to communities around the world. In the last eight years, Village Bicycle Project has sent 77 shipping containers holding roughly 450 bikes each to Ghana and one to El Salvador.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana in the mid-1980s, Peckham not only learned about how to help in developing countries, but he first noticed the surprising lack of bicycles in a place where they seemed to make sense.

When the African nation removed the import duties on bikes in 1999, Peckham saw his chance and started his program, modeled off one that sent bikes to Nicaragua.

"I went to look at the bike culture [in Ghana] and found people who really wanted something to happen," he said.

Unlike Village Hope's plan, the bikes provided by the Village Bicycle Project are sold rather than given. Peckham said roughly 70 percent are sold on the open market to recover the cost of shipping, and the remaining 30 percent are sold at half-price to people who volunteer to take a free, one-day basic bike maintenance course.

"We don't believe in give-away charity," he said. "A gift isn't appreciated, it isn't valued."

When Bart first reached out to Peckham, Peckham said he was surprised to see another Idaho charity focusing on bikes. When the two groups first started talking, the idea was to gather the used bikes from the Moscow area, but Peckham pointed out that if he can get 400 bikes from Moscow annually, surely Bart could find 40 in Boise. Peckham then contacted the Boise Bike Project, a young nonprofit that fixes up donated bicycles and matches them with refugees and children in need.

"They were just a natural ally of what we're doing," Peckham said.

BBP welcomed the partnership. "It's a good program to be a part of," said BBP co-founder Brian Anderson. "It promotes bicycling and folks in our community are coming out and learning about bicycle maintenance."

Now, while Village Hope is making overall plans, Peckham is organizing the donation of bikes and efforts to repair them, while Boise Bike Project is providing the space for storage and work, as well as providing needed parts.

Last week, a group of volunteers spent an afternoon repairing the roughly 20 bikes donated so far, while organizers worked on ways to solicit even more bikes.

A group of Boise State Students have organized a bike drive for Saturday, Oct. 11, beginning at 9 a.m. at Boise Co-op. Organizers are specifically looking for mountain bikes, but Peckham said all bikes are welcome. Those that aren't suitable for the Village Hope project will be welcomed by BBP or used for parts.

Bart hopes to have the first container ready to ship by the middle of October, and he plans to meet the shipment in Africa to help clear the donations through customs in December. He will later be joined by a group of volunteers—private citizens from Boise as well as several groups of students from both Boise State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Bart has been working with professors to learn about less expensive ways to build new schools.

Peckham will join Bart for several weeks, not only to help the project, but to take a closer look at the possibilities of expanding the Village Bicycle Project into Sierra Leone.

Bart said Village Hope has roughly a dozen different projects in the works, including distributing the roughly 8,000 pencils, 5,000 pens and 3,000 notebooks already collected for school children and the bikes for their teachers.

It may seem like a small gesture, but Bart hopes it's the foundation for greater change. "[Sierra Leone] is one of the poorest countries, but it's a country on the road to recovery," he said.

For more information about the Village Hope bike project, visit villagehopeinc.org.

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