Recycling Bikes into Hope
As a project economist visiting potential grant sites in rural Latin America, Keith Oberg noticed how useful a bike could be for things like helping a carpenter carry his tools to a job or getting a student to school. In 2005, he started Bikes for the World as a sponsored project of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and in 2011 it became an independent nonprofit.
The four-employee organization operates out of a 5,400-square-foot warehouse in Rockville where bikes are collected and sorted. More than 140,000 bikes have been sent to 12 countries, including Costa Rica, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Madagascar and El Salvador.
“I saw so much potential. It was exciting to do something new and grow it,” says Oberg, who has retired from his role as executive director and is now involved part time with the organization. The 67-year-old saw the Bikes for the World model as a “win-win.” When a bike is donated, it is given a new life rather than being dumped in a landfill. Local volunteers do meaningful hands-on work and learn bike-repair skills as they prepare bikes for shipping. Nonprofit partners abroad repair the bikes, and individuals in need get a low-cost form of critical transportation.
“These are bikes that you might be tripping over in your garage, you are ready to upgrade or the kids outgrew,” says Liz Daley, director of development at Bikes for the World. “They are turned into tools of empowerment for somebody to change their life.”
Each year, about 1,000 volunteers—kids as young as 8, corporate groups, scout troops and retirees among them—work in the warehouse to make bikes as compact as possible (rotating handlebars, removing pedals) so they can be squeezed into shipping containers. Bikes that are too damaged are stripped for parts, which are shipped as well.
Ken Woodard, chair of the Upper School history department at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, regularly brings groups of girls to volunteer.
“Keith is brilliant at articulating the mission and explaining to the students why what they are doing is so important,” Woodard says. “When they show up, there is a pile of old bikes, and after, there is a stack of usable parts. The benefit of their achievement is immediately obvious.”